Esa, on Law & Order

April 29, 2009

No, I’m not talking principles here, I really do mean the show.

I’ve always found it uncanny how the writers of Law and Order: SVU somehow manage to take whatever issue it is that’s eating away at my mind and make it into one of the most entertaining hours on television.

For anyone who didn’t see tonight’s episode, I’ll provide a brief synopsis:

(SPOILER ALERT)

The show opens with a woman telling Olivia and Elliot about how her infant grandchild is missing and how she is afraid that the child’s young, irresponsible mother (played by Hillary Duff) allowed something horrible to happen to her. Long story short, the audience is led to believe that Hillary’s character killed her child. With the help of the grandfather, who is a recovering alcoholic slipping back into his addiction at the news of his granddaughter’s death, the detectives find the child’s body. It is then discovered that the child died of measles, but that her mother felt responsible and buried the body out of guilt.

Since this only gets us about 35 minutes into the show, there is a twist. After all, who dies of measles these days? Apparently there has been a small-scale outbreak in the city, which the detectives trace back to a patient zero (because it’s TV and the same detectives handle special victims and epidemics, apparently). The patient is a four year old boy (now recovered) whose mother chose not to vaccinate. Skipping ahead again, through some convoluted reasoning that would only stand on a TV show, they try the woman who chose not to vaccinate her child for the murder of the infant girl from the beginning of the episode. She is found “not guilty” and the episode ends with the grandfather killing himself in front of the woman he holds responsible for the death of his granddaughter.

So, now you’re asking yourself: Why does this matter? It’s just a TV show!

Well, it matter’s because, as it turns out, fiction mirrors reality. There are a number of parents in this country who are now choosing not to vaccinate their children, either on the basis of religion (which is another post topic entirely), or because they are afraid of side effects from the vaccine. Over the course of the episode, each of the characters brought up some major points that surround the vaccine controversy today.

Dr. Warner discussed the issue of SAFETY. Immunization from measles is a part of the MMR vaccine (MMR for measles, mumps, and rubella). It is an extremely contagious virus that is transmitted through the air. It is estimated that 90% of people who come into contact with a contagious person contract the infection. A person begins being contagious up to 4 days before the characteristic rash occurs – in other words, they can spread the disease while thinking they have nothing more than a common cold. 1/500 measles cases results in death. Complications such as seizures and encephalitis are more common. Luckily, the vaccine is 95% effective, made even more successful through a phenomena known as herd immunity. Side effects from the vaccine include a number of mild reactions (redness, irritation, swelling), as well as rare febrile seizures (one time seizures, with no lasting impact), and encephalitis in less than 1 in one million cases. Contrary to the statement on the show, there have been no confirmed instances of death due to the vaccination as far as I could find. For more information, go to the CDC vaccine website.

True to form, Detective Munch mentioned the possibility of GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY. Do vaccines remain on the market only to line the pockets of Big Pharma and their government puppets? I don’t tend to believe in major conspiracies like this – partly because I’m cynical about the ability of the government to keep things secret, and partly because I believe in humanity.

Elliot and Olivia debated the question of CHOICE. Now we have seen the facts and must ask ourselves whether a mother should have the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate her child. Vaccination is compulsory in all US states in order to attend a public school, with exceptions made for medical reasons (for example, a severely immuno-compromised child may not be given his immunizations). All but two states (West Virginia and Alabama) also give exceptions for religious beliefs, and many give exceptions for philosophical reasons as well. Mothers who do not live in states with the philosophical exception rule can choose to home school their child or send them to private school (or to lie about their religion, I suppose).

Lastly, Alex asked about SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY. We may have the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate our own child, but what happens when our choices impact others, such as young children who have not yet been immunized, as happened in this episode, or in those 5% of people for whom the vaccine is not effective? It may seem far fetched; everyone thinks they know that no one gets measles anymore. However, there is an increasing risk as increasing numbers of people choose not to vaccinate. We are already seeing this happen across the pond.

Just some things to think about

~ Esa

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