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A New Play Dramatizes the Debate Surrounding Childhood Vaccines: Public Health Watch

SEP 18, 2019 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
It was William Shakespeare, of course, who once wrote, “the play’s the thing,” and if the Bard was alive today, we’re sure he’d know that some of the biggest dramas of these chaotic and confusing times have centered on issues related to public health.

To be fair, that was arguably true in the playwright and poet’s day as well—what with the sociopolitical ramifications of the “Black Death” in the 14th century still evident some 200 years later.

However, what might come as a shock to Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous resident are the all-too-true stories of people refusing proven preventatives for potentially life-threatening infectious diseases. Would he consider this tragedy or comedy—or perhaps a bit of both?

A contemporary playwright, Jonathan Spector, certainly believes the issue is perfect fodder for the dramatic arts. His latest play, called “Eureka Day,” is set at a fictitious middle school in Berkeley, California, where not all of the students have received the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine because their parents have refused, for one reason or another.

As a result, the school becomes the setting for a larger philosophical debate on one of the biggest public health issues facing the world today—that of vaccine-preventable diseases and the misinformation and disinformation that provides fuel to the so-called “anti-vaxxer movement.” “Eureka Day” depicts how this (often heated) conflict, which has been played out in communities all over the world, particularly during recent measles outbreaks, affects the school.

“I don’t feel like it’s a debate,” Spector told the New York Times in August. “From my point of view, the science is settled.”

If only everyone felt the same way. Although the percentage of children receiving the full course of the MMR vaccine has remained relatively stable in the United States (at ~91.9%), per data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there has been an uptick in those who receive none of their recommended shots (for MMR and other diseases), from 0.7% in 2013 to 1.1% in 2017, the last year for which statistics are available. Meanwhile, researchers have documented troubling declines in vaccine coverage in countries such as England and France, although officials in the latter have been successful in reversing this trend through targeted outreach efforts.

Perhaps “Eureka Day” will also change some minds. The play is scheduled for productions in Philadelphia (October 25th through November 17th) and Washington, DC (December 4th through January 5th), and 2 concurrent stagings in New York and Sonoma County, California run through this weekend. 

Spector has said he got the idea for the play after he and his family moved to the Bay Area in California and encountered parents opposed to vaccinating their children.

“I had this experience of talking to people who were very smart, very well educated, and sort of agreed with me about everything,” he told the Times. “And then you would realize that in this one area, they seem to live on a different planet than you do.”

Enter, we think, Shakespeare. That quote we began this week’s column with is from Hamlet, and in full it reads, “I’ll have grounds, more relative than this—the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Forget royalty. We’d settle for the consciences of a few million parents.
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