“On Immunity: An Inoculation”
It’s not too often that a new book about immunizations hits the shelves. And it’s even less often that a book on immunizations from a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning essayist is published. Much of my reading for work involves publications in medical journals or things like the CDC’s “Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases” (say that three times fast) – while full of information that is both useful and fascinating, they’re not exactly page-turners. So I was excited to pick up “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss.
Eula Biss approaches the topic as a mother and essayist, not as a scientist or advocate, and she blends poignant stories from her own experiences of birth and motherhood with philosophical contemplation. Rather than focusing on the science of immunization, she asks the question, what does it mean to be vaccinated? What does it mean to be immune to diseases? What are the cultural implications and contexts of choosing to be immunized, or to forgo immunizations?
The book is short – just 163 pages – and Biss’ prose is tight, so while she touches on sources ranging from her conversations with other mothers to Greek philosophy to Victorian gothic novels, her tangents never ramble. Susan Sontag’s work on illness as a metaphor is a huge influence on her, and Dracula (yes, the vampire) makes several appearances as well. She explores the culture of fear that impacts the choices many parents make, and the constant tension between individual freedom and the collective good that marks American discourse.
On this last note, she addresses the work of a prominent promoter of an “alternative,” un-researched and un-proven immunization schedule who recommends delaying some immunizations and skipping others. A few years ago, one of his patients got measles and went on to infect several vulnerable children and infants in their school and in a different doctor’s waiting room:
“In Dr. Bob’s world, another doctor’s waiting room is not his concern and public health is entirely independent of individual health. ‘This is an important vaccine from a public health standpoint,’ he writes of the hep B vaccine, ‘but it’s not as critical from an individual point of view.’ In order for this to make sense, one must believe that individuals are not part of the public. Public health, Dr. Bob suggests, is not our health.” (p 108-109)