By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Eula Biss
Narrated by: Tamara Marston
One hesitates to review Eula Biss’s book “On Immunity” about inoculation because it likely reduces the probability that a reader/listener will fairly consider her point of view. Once a reviewer shows that Biss supports inoculation, those opposed are likely not to read or listen to her book. Biss is not a doctor. However, she is a mother, and an award-winning non-fiction writer who is praised for the quality of her research, and writing.
In light of Biss’s hyper-vigilance as a research writer, and more importantly as a mother, one knows she is committed to making the most responsible decisions possible about inoculation. The word “hyper-vigilance” in regard to research and motherhood is used to suggest Biss carefully considers inoculation’s benefits and threats. Biss notes that inoculation deniers are not entirely wrong about inoculation but she argues that their concerns are based on weak science. The evidence of history is that inoculation reduces the number of deaths and disabilities from illness; not without errors in manufacture and distribution, but with dramatic improvement in reduced mortality rates.
Biss convincingly explains that parents who refuse to accept inoculation are putting themselves, their children, and others at risk for diseases that have maimed and killed millions of people in the world. The ravages of smallpox, polio, tetanus, and influenza have been hugely reduced in the world by inoculation. When one person chooses not to be inoculated they increase their chance of contracting or becoming a host for a disease that may maim or kill thousands, if not millions of people. Biss explains how an unspecified threshold of un-inoculated populations can cause an epidemic which may turn into a pandemic.
Claims of inoculation links to autism are based on weak science. The “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” noted in their 2013 study that there is no correlation between vaccines and autism. In spite of an overwhelming number of scientific studies that show autism, measles, mumps and rubella vaccines have no causal relationship to disease, responsible parents choose not to inoculate. Some believe–if they live a “clean”, “natural” life, they can escape these diseases. Biss suggests this is a false belief.
A “clean” environment only looks clean. Pathogens are generally unseen and ubiquitous. Pathogens are part of a “natural” environment. Unless one chooses to live in a bubble supplied with air and nutrition, he/she will be exposed. In the modern age, population isolation is a myth.
As inoculation decreases in a population, the threshold of epidemic comes closer. This threshold is not precisely known but myths of cleanliness or population isolation will not prevent epidemics. When the threshold ( balance-point) of an un-inoculated population is reached, everyone is put at risk because pathogens adapt to their hosts, whether inoculated or not.
Biss correlates the legend of Dracula with the unreasoning fear of inoculation deniers. Her analogy is less interesting than most of her thoughtful examination of immunity. Despite how much Biss fears loss of health for her son, she insists on inoculating him against known diseases. Biss supports her argument for inoculation with history and science, but her maternal hyper-vigilance should convince those who doubt her belief based on emotion, rather than strongly supported science and history.
Biss infers those doctors who sit on the fence regarding inoculation (she mentions a famed pediatrician named Dr. Bob), do a disservice to the public. This synopsis of “On Immunity” is a candle light on Biss’s book about inoculation. Read or listen to the book. It replaces candle light with sunshine.