Washington-based journalist Allen looks closely at how authorities have imposed preventive vaccination against infectious diseases and how people have responded to that imposition.
He opens with a consideration of vaccination’s predecessor, variolation, in which smallpox virus taken directly from the pustule of a sick patient was scratched into a healthy person’s skin in the hope of producing a less severe attack. The term “vaccination” was not used until after William Jenner’s 1796 experiment, which eventually led to the eradication of smallpox but also to the organization of anti-vaccine groups opposed to it for religious or health reasons. By the mid-20th-century, vaccination against smallpox was no longer needed, but American children were routinely receiving shots to prevent some eight separate diseases. Allen provides an engrossing chapter on the development of a polio vaccine and the rivalry between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Equally fascinating are his accounts of how rubella (the R in the standard MMR shot) became a catalyst for change in this country’s abortion laws; how an NBC-TV documentary on the dangers of whooping cough vaccine (the P in the DPT shot) affected public confidence in vaccines; and of the 1976 swine flu fiasco (some flu shot recipients subsequently suffered Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing neurological disorder). The author explores the reasons behind drug companies’ growing reluctance to produce vaccines and parents’ increasing hesitancy about having their children vaccinated, scrutinizing the charges that a mercury-containing preservative in vaccines causes autism. Vaccines, he reports, are now safer than ever, but public skepticism about their worth and safety is stronger than it has been in a long time. His clear, highly readable account describes the good that vaccines have done and the problems that vaccination faces.
Solid, attention-holding history.