ON IMMUNITY by Eula Biss
Kirkus Star


An Inoculation
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National Book Critics Circle Award winner Biss (Notes from No Man’s Land, 2009) investigates the nature of vaccinations, from immunity as myth to the intricate web of the immune system.

The fears surrounding vaccines are not late-breaking news, as the author notes in this literate, rangy foray into the history and consequences of vaccination. In the 18th century—and frankly, little less today—it was understandable to associate vaccination with the work of witches: “The idea…that pus from a sick cow can be scraped into a wound on a person and make that person immune to a deadly disease is almost as hard to believe now as it was in 1796.” Indeed, the idea of poking yourself with a dose of virulent organisms to save yourself from them is not an intuitive leap. Biss ably tracks the progress of immunization: as metaphor—the protective impulse to make our children invulnerable (Achilles, Oedipus); as theory and science (the author provides a superb explanation of herd immunity: “when enough people are vaccinated with even a relatively ineffective vaccine, viruses have trouble moving from host to host and cease to spread”); as a cash cow for big pharma; and as a class issue—the notion of the innocent and the pure being violated by vaccinations, that “people without good living standards need vaccines, whereas vaccines would only clog up the more refined systems of middle-class and upper-class people.” Biss also administers a thoughtful, withering critique to more recent fears of vaccines—the toxins they carry, from mercury to formaldehyde, and accusations of their role in causing autism. The author keeps the debate lively and surprising, touching on Rachel Carson here and “Dr. Bob” there. She also includes her father’s wise counsel, which accommodates the many sides of the topic but arrives at a clear point of view: Vaccinate.

Brightly informative, giving readers a sturdy platform from which to conduct their own research and take personal responsibility.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-55597-689-7
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2014


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