Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Eula Biss: On Immunity

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Eula Biss has written a beautiful small book about the currently hot topic of vaccines without actually writing about current events. Instead, she takes a broad view, as her title says, and looks at immunity- what is behind the new fear of vaccinations? What is behind vaccinations and the concept of immunity? This isn't just a medical book, though, it also deals with literature and Biss's personal narrative as a mother and a scholar. "On Immunity" is an odd book, for sure, but a beautiful and thought provoking one.

At the outset of the book, when Biss is first placing her journey to understand the questions of inoculations and immunity in context, she discusses the idea of trust. At the time of writing, trust in the government was (is) at a low due to ongoing ludicrous wars and corporations seem no better: foreclosures and layoffs were (are) at all time highs. Biss was repeatedly urged to trust herself as a mother and to have "consumer confidence." She was disturbed by the constant refrain among other new mothers; the "worldview they suggested: nobody can be trusted." She contrasts this to her thoughts about trust: "Even now," she writes, "years after my son's birth, I remain interested in the precise meaning of trust, particularly in legal and financial terms. A trust- in the sense of a valuable asset placed in the care of someone to whom it does not ultimately belong- captures, more or less, my understanding of what it is to have a child." What does it mean to be a mother, to have the trust of bringing someone into the world placed upon one of us, but not be able to trust anyone else? Further, do we have responsibilities to others undertaking this process? Or are we only concerned about our own bodies, our own children, when we're talking thinking about who to trust?

Biss makes an important historical comparison: Debates over vaccination are often couched in the language of slavery and are discussion of power. I recently walked by a protest outside of Berkeley City Hall where a small group of white people was protesting with signs about the Tyranny of Mandatory Vaccination. Historically, this has also been the case: in the 1850s, anti-vaccinators drew on the "political, emotive, or rhetorical value of the slave, of the colonized African." But when push came to shove, this constituency was really concerned with white English citizens. Are modern anti-vaccinators now truly concerned with the concept of tyranny? Do they worry about dictatorships or slavery? Are they also concerned about the dangers that they, unvaccinated, pose to others? As Biss puts it, "It might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be 'threatened,' but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous. Even the little bodies of children, which our time encourages us to imagine as absolutely vulnerable, are dangerous in their ability to spread disease." She describes an unvaccinated child who spread measles to 11 other children, 3 of whom were infants too young to be vaccinated. Whether we want to admit it or not, our bodies are not merely innocent receptacles under the yoke of a terrible, untrustworthy government.
This is a radical inversion of the historical application of vaccination, which was once just another form of bodily servitude extracted from the poor for the benefit of the privileged. There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally, through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.
If we are going to put trust in things, it means imagining ourselves as part of the larger whole. It means that our bodies aren't independent beings; Biss's sister points out that independence is an illusion. It is a distinct disconnect how down-to-earth communities like Berkeley with such understandings of the relationships between all living things, of ecosystems, of the necessity of recycling and have such a disconnect about the fact that we, as human beings, need to work together as embodied beings towards public health.

There's a lot of great stuff in here- I could go on. Without getting hysterical (and in fact, while getting poetic), Biss refutes arguments that you might not even know are arguments against vaccinating. Did you know that people really think that medical companies are getting rich on vaccinations? They're not. There is also a TON of misinformation about a) what's in vaccines and b) if it's really bad for you. People in places like Berkeley and Marin have a lot of time to worry about this: "Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford."

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