Review: On Immunity an Inoculation by Eula Biss

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On Immunity an inoculation Eula BissPart historical and sociological study, part personal musing, and part an examination of scientific literature, On Immunity: An Inoculation sets out to show why some people vaccinate their children while others do not, and why it is important that everyone do so.

Author Eula Biss muses about her experiences as a new mother trying to decipher the conflicting claims about vaccination as she cared for her child and looks at the historical and contemporary reasons that have led people to object to vaccinations almost from the beginning. Although safety procedures, testing, and refinement have improved immeasurably since the first vaccinations (some of which did, in fact, carry additional bacteria), suspicion lingers and is now accompanied by the modern distrust of chemicals. Dracula provides a source for examining our concerns about bodily permeability and vulnerability.

Biss also examines concepts such as herd immunity, the prevention of a disease throughout a population based on the majority of its members being inoculated. She frequently refers to people’s responsibility to others, pointing out that even if the non-vaccinated child has only a mild case of a preventable illness, he or she might give it to someone more vulnerable. She points to recent studies on the immune system’s strengths and estimates that the human body could handle far more pathogens than are introduced in any vaccine, even the combined versions often used today.

The book’s greatest difficulty comes from the fact that, perhaps in an effort to be easily accessible, Biss has hidden most of her research. In-text source mentions are rare and often vague. While some sources are named in text, others are opaque: my son’s pediatrician,” “an immunologist” and so on. She has researched; there are two sets of notes at the end, one set elaborating on certain statements and another providing select citations, but there is no indication in the text which statements have notations and which do not, or whether any given statement has both a note and a citation or one or the other. The reader is left with the choice of awkwardly flipping back and forth between sections in case there might be a note, or of reading the book and then the notes. Biss—or her editor or publisher—is not, by any means, the only person ever to have made this choice, and it is invariably difficult.

On Immunity: An Inoculation is a solid overview of the history, process, and opinions about vaccination as well as a look into a mother’s anxiety for her child and how best to care for him or her. It is both a researched book and a personal confession and is a valuable addition to the library of anyone who has watched the vaccine arguments or has taken part of them.

On Immunity: An Inoculation is available now from Gray Wolf Press.

Suggested read-alongs: The Compatibility Gene and Why Aren’t We Dead Yet? for a good look at the immune system and what we know about it.

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