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leah mclaren

Pediatrician Charles Goodman holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif. The vaccine is 99-per-cent effective at preventing measles, which spreads easily through the air and in enclosed spaces. Symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough and a rash all over the body.Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press

The other day I saw a cartoon that depicted a spotty little boy being checked over by a doctor as his mom and dad looked on anxiously. "If you connect the measles," the doc is saying, "it says 'My parents are idiots.'"

I laughed out loud, but it also saddened me. A handful of measles cases in Toronto has divided my friends and relatives like no other issue in recent memory. While the debate has simmered quietly on the fringes of polite company for years, it's only now that there is genuine threat of illness that people – mostly parents of small children – are losing it. These parents are not just angry, they are terrified.

The whole scenario reminds me of that moment in Frozen when the troll doctor warns Elsa's parents that "Fear will be your worst enemy," and instead of heeding his words, they pull up the drawbridge and lock their magical daughter in her room.

Parents I know are calling each other names, threatening to pull their kids out of school and cancelling play dates. Mostly this is playing out on Facebook, but I've heard stories of similar scenes at dinner parties, tobogganing hills and daycare centres. Just this week my mother got into a Facebook row with her neighbour, a woman she likes very much but who opted not to vaccinate her kids. Another friend posted a message asking anyone she knew who hadn't taken their kids in for jabs to please let her know as she was trying to create a "vaccination tent" around her six-month-old baby on the advice of her GP. This in turn led to some angry outbursts in her comment thread from friends who felt they were being treated as social pariahs.

Researching this column, I came across a Facebook page called "Things anti-vaxers say," devoted to nuggets of new-age wisdom posted by people who believe vaccines don't save lives. The page, which refers to anti-vaxers as "scum" who "don't deserve to have children," has nearly 13,000 likes.

The argument, which started back in 1998 with the now-discredited autism link, is now a full-blown culture war, with both sides entrenched and immovable. The tone and tenor of the vaccination debate in Toronto right now is not unlike the one over gun control in the U.S., with both sides seething with anger and absolute moral certainty.

I'm not trying to take a diplomatic line here and say both sides have a point. I am pro-vaccination and anti-Second Amendment. But I'm also not going to bother making that argument again because, really, what's the point? Like most sane people, I have a short list of inflammatory topics I refuse to discuss on social media because doing so feels about as productive and enlightening as hollering into an echo chamber. These include: Israel, the dangers of wheat gluten and, now, the MMR vaccine.

What's interesting but toxic, I think, is how both sides in the vaccination debate are driven by precisely the same impulse, and that is an out-and-out, stomach-clenching concern for the health and well-being of our children. I have absolutely no doubt that most people who haven't vaccinated their kids (and I know a few) have good intentions, which is to say, they are eager to keep their children safe in what they perceive to be a dangerous world. What fascinates and depresses me is the way this impulse can actually end up backfiring in the most appalling way – not just for the tiny minority of unvaccinated kids, but for everyone.

In this sense, the Toronto vaccination war shares the same dark irony of other conflicts driven by hyper-vigilance and quasi mass-hysteria: By engaging these persistent (but largely irrational) fears, by letting them infect and divide us, we often end up doing our children, our communities and ourselves more damage than if we had only remained calm and mutually respectful – and trusted public-health officials to do their jobs.

What scares me most about the Toronto measles outbreak is not the thought of children dying en masse or the inevitable return of mutant strains of the mumps and rubella (a more severe measles outbreak occurred in the U.K. two years ago, and health-care workers swiftly got it under control). It's watching people I know and respect attack each other like angry chimps in the jungle.

A startling amount of parenting today seems driven by illogical anxiety, whether it's helicopter-hovering on the playground or monitoring our kids' diets as though they were diabetic celiacs rather than normal healthy children. We see bogeymen in every closet and destruction around each bend. We want our kids to be confident, secure and healthy, and yet we are consumed by anxiety that something awful might happen.

The irony of how utterly counterproductive this is should not be lost on any of us. As the troll says in Frozen, fear is our worst enemy.

Now do your kids a favour and try to let it go.

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