“Madam Secretary” fights anti-vaccine propaganda with facts

I’m a big fan of the CBS TV show Madam Secretary, which is a drama about a fictional Secretary of State, played by Téa Leoni. The most recent episode, “The Common Defense,” centered on several stories surrounding a measles outbreak in several countries – measles played the show’s villain (instead of Russian oligarchs, terrorists, and incompetent Congressman and Senators).

I was caught by surprise by the episode. At first, I thought they would mess up the science, or, even worse, take an anti-science approach to measles and vaccines. But I was pleasantly surprised, and it stated scientific facts about vaccines, though maybe I could nitpick here and there. I won’t.

The episode had several storylines – an anti-vaxxer Philippines president, an Australian Prime Minister who didn’t want to take in refugees from measles, and a few other arcs dealing with the spread of the disease. However, the main storyline in the episode focused on the Secretary of State’s press secretary, Daisy Grant (played by the outstanding actress, Patina Miller). She returns from a vacation cruise with her young daughter, Joanna, only to be held and quarantined by Homeland Security when they get back to the USA.

madam secretary 01
Not from the vaccine episode, but a great one that included several ex-Secretaries of State. David M. Russell/CBS

Joanna had become infected by measles from another child whose parents didn’t vaccinate her with the MMR vaccine (which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella). At this point, the story used CDC statistics which states that the vaccine is 93% effective against measles after the first dose (usually given when the child is around 12-15 months. As Daisy says in the episode, Joanna fell into that remaining 7%. Eventually, Joanna recovers, although Daisy was scared throughout the episode.

Just to nitpick – the chances of a vaccinated child, even with just one shot, contracting the virus is very rare. However, giving credit to the show, they made it clear that because Joanna was vaccinated, her measles was very mild.

On the other hand, Joanna’s unvaccinated friend contracted a dangerous complication from the measles, encephalopathy. As I was watching the episode, I wondered if she actually contracted subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a progressive, disabling, and deadly neurological disease that results from a measles infection. However, SSPE usually doesn’t present for several months or years after the measles infection. So they got that right.

Daisy asked the parents why they didn’t vaccinate the child. The father didn’t say much, but the mother said that she thought that measles had been eradicated. This is partially true – by 2000, the measles was thought to be gone from the USA. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case worldwide, and only vaccines kept it away from developed countries. Then came Andrew Wakefield’s fraud, and here we are.

The mother also said that there was so much confusing information on the internet, she decided it was safer to not vaccinate her daughter. Bad move. And that’s why this website exists, along with others like Dr. Vincent Iannelli’s Vaxopedia, the CDC, Orac, and so many others – we all present science-based facts about vaccines.

But back to Madam Secretary.

The episode coincides with several outbreaks of measles that have struck the USA and other countries lately. However, according to the executive producer of Madam Secretary, David Grae

We all know about this idea of anti-vaxxing and how dangerous it is. The idea that we could lose our herd immunity — we really need responsible leadership around the world to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The episode didn’t come across as preachy or harsh, as opposed to how I write about the anti-vaccine crowd. In fact, I felt awful for the unvaccinated child and her parents. They weren’t anti-vax activists, they just listened to the lies of the anti-vaccine religion, which many of us spend hours every day, trying to correct. They were misinformed, and their child paid a price. It made me sad.

madam secretary measles

Look, I’m not naïve. I realize that this is fictional TV, it’s not a real story, though it’s entirely plausible that the State Department would have to deal with measles on a worldwide basis. But it’s good to see a popular TV show (and it’s very popular with those who are more liberal since the show presents very liberal viewpoints about foreign and domestic policy issues) take on an important issue in science and public health.

The Verge, in their review of this episode, reached out to Dr. Peter Hotez, MD, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and an expert in vaccines. Dr. Hotez, who is reviled by anti-vaxxers, wrote a wonderful book, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism, about his autistic child. The Verge wrote:

Reaching people is something TV is especially good at, says Hotez, who wrote a book about being a vaccine researcher and the parent of a child with autism called Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism. “Let’s face it. At the end of the day, many more people are going to watch this episode of Madam Secretary than are going to read my book,” he says.

At the end of the episode, in a sort of post-credits scene, Ms. Leoni asks viewers to get more information from UNICEF about vaccines. 

I hope vaccine-hesitant parents take the time and effort to get the facts about vaccines. They will save their children’s lives.



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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!