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On Immunity: An Inoculation

Jeffery Shotts, the executive editor at Graywolf Press, calls On Immunity “an inoculation against our fear.” In eloquent prose, well-researched and forceful arguments, and a dazzling exposition of myths and metaphors, Eula Biss, winner of the National Book Critics Award for her work Notes from No Man’s Land, explores an increasingly pressing issue: the act of vaccination against disease. Biss draws on conversations and issues presented by physicians, mothers who share her same fears, and also literary greats such as Bram Stoker, Voltaire, Susan Sontag, and Rachel Carson, to discover the foundation of our cultural fear of vaccinations.

Biss begins with an examination of the myth of Achilles. In this story, Thetis, Achilles’ mother, dips her son by the heel into the River Styx in order to immunize him from harm. And yet, as the story goes, the very act Thetis takes to protect Achilles becomes his greatest weakness.

Throughout the book, Eula Biss presents and dissects, with the precision of a carpenter’s X-Acto knife, our fears of vaccinations. She explains and justifies these fears, and understands them herself, as she experienced them when it was time to decide whether she ought to vaccinate her own child. Her son was born in the midst of the H1N1 pandemic and as a result she became hypersensitive to the matter of protecting her son from infectious disease. This story is as much an exploration of the efficacy of vaccination as it is a mother seeking answers and remedies to her own fears of injecting impurities into the body of her child in the name of immunity.

The author covers many issues surrounding vaccination, and dispels many slanderous rumors, such as when someone of incomparable wisdom like Jenny McCarthy says things like this, even though all the scientific literature on the issue has shown no link between vaccination and autism. Or when so called experts like the inimitable Dr. Bob, author of The Vaccine Book, warns parents “not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR [vaccine], we’ll likely see the disease increase significantly.” It is precisely this type of thinking that severely damages our collective ability to defend ourselves from disease. (The reader should note that sarcasm was employed in the preceding paragraph.)

This serves as the perfect transition to the most thought provoking concept with which Biss utilizes her precision knife to cut away the misperceptions of vaccination. Her meditations on ‘herd immunity’ were what most drew me into the text. I found myself pondering the implications of this metaphor for days after I finished the book. Biss states that “the Greeks imagined the body politic as an organism, itself alive and part of a greater cosmic organism—both the citizen and the city were bodies within bodies.” She elaborates on this idea further and provides an overwhelmingly convincing argument for vaccination grounded on the metaphor that the individual and the community at large are bound as one, and that the individual has a social responsibility to protect itself from disease and therefore protect others as well.

The natural body meets the body politic in the act of vaccination, where a single needle penetrates both. The capacity of some vaccines to generate a collective immunity superior to the individual immunity produced by those same vaccines suggests that the politic has not only a body, but also an immune system capable of protecting it as a whole. Some of us assume that what is good for the body politic cannot be good for the body natural—that the interests of these bodies must be at odds. But the work of epidemiologists and immunologists and even mathematicians often suggests otherwise.
— Eula Biss

 

She concludes with a simple yet powerful message: “However we choose to think of the social body, we are each other’s environment. And Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.” 

On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30th, 2014, by Graywolf Press. All quotations used come from a galley version I received from the publisher and may differ from the final product.

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