Death by Individualism

CHILDHOOD VACCINATIONS have been a rite of passage for decades now. But in recent years, growing numbers of parents have refused to go along. A movement that began in the 1980s over adverse reactions to the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) shots started to become a tidal wave in 1998. That’s when a British researcher, Andrew Wakefield, published a study allegedly linking childhood vaccinations to autism.

A decade later, an anti-vaccination trend had spread into a broad swath of educated, upper- middle-class Americans inclined toward “alternative” lifestyles. It has been especially strong in the Pacific Northwest. In one county in Washington state, according to the February 2012 New England Journal of Medicine, 72 percent of kindergarteners and a whopping 89 percent of sixth graders were not fully vaccinated. Under pressure from this new constituency, many jurisdictions made it easier to get vaccine exemptions, adding to the existing “religious” exemption a new one for “philosophy” or “personal beliefs.”

Then, in 2011, the Wakefield autism study that had sparked the anti-vaccination movement was completely discredited. The British medical journal The Lancet, which had published Wakefield’s article on his findings, officially retracted it. That should have been that. But it wasn’t. In the last year public health advocates have learned the hard way that once something is on the internet it never goes away and, as one scientist told PBS’ Frontline, “People were much more likely to believe something they had seen on YouTube than the Centers for Disease Control.”

Now doctors and state governments are pushing back, and a new round in the vaccination war has begun. Washington now requires a doctor’s signature on those philosophical exemptions. In March, the Vermont Senate repealed the state’s philosophical exemption. All over the country, family doctors and pediatricians are refusing to see patients who don’t comply with vaccinations.

The issue of vaccinations and public health supplies us with a perfect example of the deep and ongoing American conflict between individualism and the common good. We submit our children to the pain of an injection not just to protect them, but to protect the whole population, including the very young, very old, or very ill, who can’t be protected by vaccines. This requires us to place the good of the group over our own comfort or convenience and that of our children. It requires us to defy the siren song of individualism.

Individualism has long been both the blessing and the curse of American life. The belief that the individual is the final arbiter of his or her own destiny has given us a culture in which ordinary people have regularly done extraordinary things. On the other hand, that same unshakeable belief in personal freedom left many of us worshipping the twin gods of Autonomy and Choice, whose blessing entitles us to eat whatever pleases us, choose to go without health insurance, or refuse to vaccinate our children, all with no regard for the costs those choices might impose upon our fellow citizens, much less future generations.

An observer from post-revolutionary France, Alexis de Tocqueville, spotted this problem among us way back in the 1830s. In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville wrote that individualism is a “feeling which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.” He continued, “individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.”

De Tocqueville thought Americans would ultimately avoid that final descent into selfishness, but he may have been wrong.

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. His latest book is a novel, White Boy.

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