Five years ago, writer Eula Biss, pregnant for the first time, decided to research the controversial topic of vaccinations. The depth of what she discovered surprised her, and she ended up writing On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, Sept.). The essayist, who won the National Book Critics Circle award for her previous book, Notes from No Man’s Land, tells Show Daily, “It became a much bigger topic even after I knew what I was going to do for my son. I found myself interested in all the other concepts that clustered around vaccinations. I realized that it’s not just about vaccinations, but it’s about our understanding of individuality, our beliefs about our bodies, our fears of toxicity, our desire for purity. It’s about our relationship to the government and it’s about capitalism, paternalism, and environmentalism.”
Biss came to the topic with her own prejudices. She, like many new mothers, felt nervous about vaccinating her child. “I didn’t know what was in vaccines, and I’d heard about toxins. I thought there was something counterintuitive about taking a perfectly healthy, brand-new human being and putting something into him that I didn’t understand.”
Despite her suspicions and skepticism, she read a diverse array of scientific, anthropological, and social material, even a history of the vaccine resistance movement in Great Britain from 1850 to 1900. She interviewed scientists and immunologists, including Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, which protects infants against severe diarrhea. She also spoke to her father, who is a physician. Biss notes, “Not only is he pro-vaccine, but being an oncologist, he’s fairly intimate with the shortcomings of medicine—there are a lot of people he can’t save. But when he talked to me about vaccines, he impressed on me that this was the greatest medical achievement of our time, and nothing he knew of came close to what we could do through vaccinations, that usually we use very imperfect tools to treat an already existing and quite serious problem, but here’s a really different approach—it’s preventative medicine. As my father explained to me, ‘Vaccination is enlisting the majority in the protection of the minority.’”
Biss hopes that people will read her book with an open mind. “Ideally, I would like people to get a fresh way of thinking about the subject, maybe not the one that they’ve settled into. That’s what it did for me. I was grateful that I stumbled into this project because I was immersed in a lot of misleading thinking. My hope is that people who’ve decided not to vaccinate will reconsider that decision. I began the book on one side of the debate, and I actually ended it on the other.”
On Immunity: An Inoculation was one of the books selected for yesterday’s Editors’ Buzz panel. Today, she will be on the Author Buzz Panel at 10 a.m., followed by galley signing at Graywolf’s booth (1746) at 11:15 a.m.