The Atlantic
Measles Health Disease America Image Credit: The Atlantic
Measles Health Disease America Image Credit: The Atlantic

Measles As Metaphor

What the disease’s return tells us about America’s ailing culture.

Peter Beinart

In two essays, “Illness as Metaphor” in 1978 and “AIDS and Its Metaphors” in 1988, the critic Susan Sontag observed that you can learn a lot about a society from the metaphors it uses to describe disease. She also suggested that disease itself can serve as a metaphor—a reflection of the society through which it travels.

In other words, the way certain illnesses spread reveals something not just about a nation’s physiological health but also about its cultural and political health. For instance, AIDS would not have ravaged America as fully as it did without institutionalized homophobia, which inclined many Americans to see the disease as retribution for gay sex.

Now another virus is offering insights into the country’s psychic and civic condition. Two decades ago, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. Yet in the first five months of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 1,000 cases—more than occurred from 2000 to 2010.

The straightforward explanation for measles’ return is that fewer Americans are receiving vaccines. Since the turn of the century, the share of American children under the age of 2 who go unvaccinated has quadrupled. But why are a growing number of American parents refusing vaccines—in the process welcoming back a disease that


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