Viruses are scary. And confusing. Eula Biss’s exploration of viruses, immunizations, and vaccinations in “On Immunity” takes the debates and breaks them down in a readable, informative way. She presents different sides of the vaccine arguments, and she brings up lots of questions and ideas for readers to think about. Biss connects stories about the birth of her first child with the short, super-interesting history of immunizations while making connections between stories that we are all familiar with like Achilles, Dracula, and Carson’s “Silent Spring.”
She explores ideas like herd immunity – basically, that means you don’t have to immunize your children, because other people immunize their children. Hence, your child is protected but does not have to take “risky” vaccinations.
We tend to value our own bodies, our own homes over the collective good. We often think of ourselves as islands, and not as an entwined hive. Biss writes, “The health of the homestead next to ours does not affect us, this thinking suggests, so long as ours is well tended.”
Biss reveals some origins of our fear of vaccinations. Overall, we have a collective fear of government and regulation in our lives. I love this paragraph:
Our cynicism may be justified, but it is also sad. That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate the wealth for others. And capitalism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.
Our uneasiness with vaccinations is a huge shift from the beginning of the century when people lined up to be in vaccine studies because they watched the horrors of smallpox and polio. They requested to be a part of trials, they wanted protection.
As I read this book, I also listened to the Radiolab podcast Patient Zero. They talk about the origins of HIV and the true story of Typhoid Mary and the latest Ebola outbreak – super riveting.
I finished this book and listened the above podcast as the Ebola “crisis” in the United States winded down. Fear causes crazy, irrational, and often selfish, behavior. Instead of concentrating on the enormous crisis in Africa, the news focused on the few cases that we had in the United States. Of course Ebola is terrifying – but the podcast describes how the virus has not mutated into an easily transmittable virus yet. If it can be contained now, that may help with the mutations that could cause it to spread easier.