On Immunity.

Eula Biss’ brief 2014 book On Immunity: An Inoculation takes a novel angle on the subject of childhood vaccinations by weaving the science around the subject into her personal experiences as a first-time mother hearing all of the nonsense anti-vaccine arguments out there and finding herself bombarded with information. Biss makes it clear that she is pro-vaccine and pro-science, and that she did get her son vaccinated, but her essay-like style puts the reader on the ground with her as she’s navigating the uncertainties and fears that come with parenthood, which may also give some readers a new window on how new parents get bamboozled by the many charlatans and frauds out there telling them not to vaccinate.

When my daughter was born, vaccinating was never a question for us … but we were shocked to learn that they vaccinate newborns for hepatitis B, a viral infection that is probably best known as a sexually transmitted disease but that can also be transmitted through many other bodily fluids, including blood, so it’s possible for a child to get an infection through exposure from another kid in school or day care. We made the mistake of looking online for information on the hep B vaccine, and found the website for the so-called “National Vaccine Information Center,” a dangerous anti-science group that spreads misinformation about vaccines and, of course, presented horror stories from parents who claimed the hep B vaccine harmed or even killed their babies. (We vaccinated anyway.)

Biss’ recounting of her own meanderings through the world of vaccine information and bullshit felt very familiar to me, as she obviously understands science – her father is a doctor, and she refers to him frequently in the text – but also gives real credence to the fears of the new parent, and how overwhelming all of the information coming at new parents can feel. Biss hits all of the notable cranks, from the NVIC to Andrew Wakefield to Bob Sears (who has been accused of selling medical exemptions for California kids) to well-meaning but clueless parents who talk about “toxins” or “natural” or “organic” as if those terms really mean anything when it comes to health. She walks back through the history of vaccinations, to Edward Jenner’s experiments with cowpox and previous awareness in non-European societies of inoculation techniques, and the associated history of anti-vaxers, a group that once at least had a legitimate complaint because vaccines weren’t regulated for safety or efficacy; in 1901, two separate batches of vaccines caused deadly tetanus outbreaks in St. Louis and Camden, New Jersey. Now, such groups just capitalize on the public’s science ignorance – and fear – to make a few bucks from selling books or “alternative” therapies. (Note: There is no such thing as “alternative medicine.” If it works, it’s medicine.)

Fear is just as much a theme of On Immunity as science, and Biss, unlike many writers (myself included), has quite a bit of empathy for parents who hear (bogus) horror stories of vaccine “injuries” or who see that vaccines contain aluminum (in adjuvants, which make the vaccines more effective) and waver on vaccinating their kids. Failing to vaccinate puts your kids at risk, but also the community as a whole; Biss discusses herd immunity, which was first identified nearly a century ago, and the societal cost of failing to vaccinate, as well as the risk posed to vulnerable populations who can’t be vaccinated, such as newborns, the elderly, or the immune compromised. This understanding tone makes it a better read, I think, for folks who are on the fence about vaccinations; she was essentially preaching to the converted with me, while hardcore denialists won’t bother with the litany of facts she includes or the blithe knockdowns of anti-vax tropes.

Biss is a “professor of instruction” in Northwestern’s English Department and has garnered praise both for On Immunity and her 2009 essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land; she writes here like an essayist, with a strong first-person perspective that allows her to bring the reader inside her head, so to speak, as she became a mother and experienced all of the typical anxieties and moments of panic that come along with new parenthood. It makes the brief book both readable and engrossing, almost as if Biss wanted to slip in a little education – a dash of history, a pinch of immunology – along the way. And the resulting work may do as much or more to address new parents’ fears of vaccines, fears that are unfounded, irrational, but still quite common, as direct attacks on anti-vaxer falsehoods.

Comments

  1. My experience was similar when our son was born. We’d heard so much scaremongering that we delayed many of his vaccinations. I’m still profoundly angry at those who scared us, and at myself for allowing myself to be scared instead of looking at actual evidence.

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