What do we learn when #SVUGoesViral? Quite a lot.


By Robyn Correll Carlyle, MPH

Full disclosure: I am not typically an SVU fan. But when I heard that the NBC drama was tackling measles, well, the vaccinerd in me just couldn’t resist.

So last Wednesday night I tuned in to watch, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

The plot started in standard SVU form. A group of prep school students partake in some scandalous activities, which results in inappropriate photos of underage teens being posted online. When detectives go to interview the kids, however, some of them are out sick with (you guessed it) measles.

While the detectives are attempting to trace the “viral” photos, they get wrapped up in investigating a parallel measles outbreak that spreads to dozens of people – including Sergeant Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) immune-compromised foster son, who had only just received the MMR vaccine and didn’t have time to develop sufficient protection.

But how is that possible? These kids had to have been vaccinated?  asked Sgt. Benson incredulous.

It turns out, they hadn’t been vaccinated, despite medical records saying they had.

I won’t spoil it for you (if you missed the episode, you can watch it here on NBC’s website), but let’s just say a vaccine opponent nicknamed “Typhoid Trudy” has her day in court.

In the public health community, we grow to expect science portrayed in popular media to be sacrificed for the sake of plot. Statistics are exaggerated. Disease symptoms hyperbolized. But SVU touched on a wide range of topics throughout the course of the episode – signs and symptoms of measles, possible complications, the true risks and benefits of vaccination, who we vaccinate and when, etc. All of which was presented using scientifically accurate information. Because as it turns out, measles is dramatic enough. There’s no need to embellish.

There were a few mic drop moments – like when “Trudy,” whose son has been identified as the source of the measles outbreak, insists that as a mother, vaccination should be an individual decision. She exclaims passionately, “My child. My right. My decision.” The prosecutor then responds, “But you didn’t just make a decision for yourself, did you? You made a decision that endangered everyone else. What gives you the right to take away their choice?”

But what really impressed me were the more subtle moments. Like when Sgt. Benson finds out her son was exposed to measles, she makes a point of asking her colleague whether his kids were up-to-date. That little gesture, that simple act of just checking in with the people around her to make sure they are protected, is something that we don’t always see – in Hollywood or in real life. Yes, vaccination is something you do as an individual. But it’s an action that can protect not just yourself but your entire community.

When the measles outbreak made headlines in January, did you check in with your friends and family to make sure they were protected? Take a lesson from Sgt. Benson. It doesn’t have to be a big conversation. But it can make all the difference.

Click here for ideas on how you can talk about vaccines in every day conversations. 

Robyn is a project manager for educational programming at The Immunization Partnership

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