On Immunity: An Inoculation – Review


I judge a book by two things.

1. Can I read through the whole thing?
2. How many photos do I take of the text?

For me, photographing passages of the book is like highlighting without being disrespectful. Plus, I can share it, take it with me, and otherwise spread the words that have made me pause and think.

With Eula Biss’ book, On Immunity: An Inoculation, I think there are a dozen or so pages I’ve snapped. And for me, that’s saying a lot. Normally it’s just one or two passages unless, well unless it’s potentially thought-changing.

For me, it isn’t about whether or not to vaccinate a child – no kids, eh. Nor was it about vaccinating myself. I have been vaccinated all my life, and usually even get the yearly flu shot. I even have my smallpox “star” (they stopped vaccinating against smallpox in the general population in 1972, which makes me feel really fricking old, but anyway…). Regardless, I don’t particularly have any strong feelings about vaccines. Until recently, that is. Recently there has been a wave of anti-vaccination that has led to an even more recent outbreak of measles across Canada and the US because not enough people are vaccinated. So what I started to feel strongly was… curiosity.

Why are some people so against vaccinations?

And I did not want to hear from misinformed proselytizers or over-reactive moms (Biss writes about why it’s predominantly mothers and not fathers who are anti-vaccine). And I didn’t want to hear how foolish “the other side” is, no matter who that other side is.

Biss delivers that, and so much more. Her book won’t change anyone’s mind, but it might open it up a little – not to change, but to understanding why some women are so against vaccinating their children.

And that’s all well and good, really it is. Fascinating. But what blows my mind is her clear and direct connection between fear of vaccines and such things as race, class, and AIDS.

[yes, here comes the queer part]

budding HIV virus
budding HIV virus

Having been an adult when AIDS first reared its head, I had never really considered the homophobic effects it would have on things like vaccines.

“The unspoken corollary was that other people with HIV were to blame for their infection. My generation came of age in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, and it seems to have left us believing not that we are all vulnerable to disease, but that it is possible to avoid disease by living a cautions life and limiting our contact with others, ” Biss writes.

This is one of many influencing factors on the my-child-doesn’t-need-a-vaccine-because-we-aren’t-a-diseased-kind-of-people school of thought.

The afflictions that take the most lives worldwide are now heart disease, stroke, respiratory infections, and AIDS, which is the only one of these that tends to be characterized as a plague… In order to be promoted to plague, a disease must be particularly feared or dreaded. ~ Susan Sontag

Biss writes, “‘Can you imagine,’ I ask a friend while reading A Journal of the Plague Years,’ seeing people all around you dying from a disease and not knowing what is causing it, or how it is passed, or who will be next?’ Even as I say this, it occurs to me that my friend lived in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and saw nearly everyone he knew die of a disease about which almost nothing was known. San Francisco in 1989, he reminds me, was not entirely unlike London in 1665.”

Having been an anti-AIDS worker bee in 1989, I too can say that yes, I knew what it was like on the “inside” of the mystery. But it never occurred to me what long-term effect it was having on the outside.

And there’s more, so much more, to Biss’ analysis of fear, risk, mitigation, community, feminism, war, violence, and identity in our metaphors around health, vaccines, immunity and ourselves.

So the next time you want to open your mind a little bit, not necessarily to vaccines but to humanity, give Biss’ book a read. You won’t be disappointed.

cover of the book On Immunity: An Inoculation
cover of the book On Immunity: An Inoculation

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