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Book review: On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

Myths, metaphors and vampires: Eula Biss’s expansive exploration of vaccination will surprise you

Photograph: Lauren Spinelli
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
By Eula Biss. Graywolf Press, $24.

For those of us without young children, our knowledge of the hot-button vaccination issue is probably limited. We may be aware that TV personality Jenny McCarthy is staunchly antivaccination, that antivaxers believe the inoculations cause autism and other maladies and that polio, measles and tetanus still ravage developing countries. There are many argumentative books on these topics; Eula Biss’s On Immunity is not one of them. While Biss, the well-informed daughter of a physician, is pro-vaccination, the book is more an attempt to unravel such a narrow-focused duality. From the myth of Achilles (whose mother tried to immunize him from the world’s perils, save that pesky heel) and the scourge of malaria to Dracula and DDT, the author expands a straightforward question—to vaccinate or not to vaccinate—into a multilayered investigation of fear and perception.

A unique balancing act, On Immunity puts forth both the wealth of information Biss gained in her research (including more than 30 pages of endnotes) and the author’s experiences and emotions surrounding these issues. Everytime she begins to tiptoe the line of the dry and esoteric, she circles back to the narrative’s driving force: her son. Through his life and health, she reveals the anxieties she discovered as a parent, her need for knowledge, her skepticism and, more subtly, her own generous viewpoint. After speaking to a friend who did not vaccinate her children, Biss writes, “The best I could do…was hope that my own child’s body might help shield them from disease.”

Her larger—and brilliantly executed—point is that vaccination is not an act of self-preservation but one of community safety, that the vaccinated can protect the abstainers. Without ever entering the realm of the preachy or the obstinate, Biss transposes the idea of vaccination from the cold scientific world to a warmer space of empathy: “If vaccination can be conscripted into acts of war, it can still be instrumental in works of love.” And just like that, you’ll never think of a simple shot the same way again.

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