by Eula Biss
c.2014, Graywolf Press $24.00 / $27.99 Canada 207 pages
You’ve got a big job.
You took it on the moment your child was born, knowing that protecting him was a lifetime assignment. And now, as part of that job, you’re questioning the viability of a rite that children have undergone for decades: vaccinate or not?
You’ve read the pros and the cons, and your mind swims. But once you read “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss, you’ll understand a little more.
While modern medicine is surely that, vaccination has been around for quite awhile: in the mid-1700s, many noticed that milkmaids exposed to cowpox were immune to smallpox, and they acted accordingly. Even before that, though, parents in China and India practiced a form of vaccination called variolation. And before that, birth was “the original inoculation.”
As the daughter of a doctor, Eula Biss got the full round of vaccines that most babies of her generation received. She debated, however, about vaccinating her own son from a strain of flu that was going around when he was an infant, which led to the greater question: which vaccines – if any - are necessary?
The complication, she learned, is that we can’t see vaccine “just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of… community.” Total world-wide immunization against disease is nearly impossible, but statistics show that if the right percentage of a population is immunized, it can halt an epidemic. The majority effectively protects the minority.
So is it better to receive natural immunity from a disease by contracting it?
Not necessarily, says Biss. While it’s true that we wouldn’t be a species without viruses (a “surprising amount” of our genomes consist of “debris from ancient viral infections”), allowing your children to catch certain childhood diseases now can be detrimental to them later in their lives.
Hand sanitizers aren’t the answer, either, since they kill “indiscriminately,” promote antibiotic resistance, and leave behind traces of unsavory chemicals. And part of the vaccine-or-not issue is that misinformation can, well, go viral.
And yet, “uncomfortable with both sides” of the argument, and “overwhelmed by information,” Biss went ahead with the schedule of inoculations for her son. “I still believe,” she says, “there are reasons to vaccinate that transcend medicine.”
When you see something these days about vaccinations, it’s easy to conclude that it might fiercely be for or against. Not so with “On Immunity.”
With cautious deliberation and careful reflection, author Eula Biss offers readers a good balance in this debate, which is delightfully welcome. As a mother, she’s obviously had to ponder the issue and her conclusions are based in fact and personal anecdote, although she also includes the perfect amount of history and literature for entertainment.
I’m not sure this book will change any minds, but it does offer a fair mix to consider if you’re a parent facing the decision. For you, or for anyone who’s interested in a hidden history of medicine, “On Immunity” is worth a shot.
Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri is a professional book reviewer who has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book.