Eula Biss gave birth to her first child right as the H1N1 flu epidemic was freaking out the globe. As many new mothers do, she took to the Internet to try to learn more about the risk of the flu versus the risk of the flu vaccine for her newborn baby. The information she found there was conflicting, confusing, and ultimately not all that helpful at resolving her myriad questions (welcome to my world as a research librarian, Ms. Biss!).
Ultimately, she erred on what she decided was the side of caution and ended up going along with her doctor’s recommendation to vaccinate her child (for the flu and everything else). But that sense of overwhelming responsibility, confusion, and fear led her to rethink that choice more than once over the following years, as vaccines after vaccines were pumped into her child’s veins.
This book is what came out of her quest to get to the bottom of the truth about vaccine safety (i.e., that vaccines are vital and everybody who can get them should), and it’s a fascinating journey to take at her side. Into this well thought-out combination of science and emotion, Biss mixes in a healthy dose of history, analysis of evolving cultural norms (changing notions of “filth” and “purity,” for example), a look at pop culture’s role (vampires, anyone?), and ideas taken from both literature and philosophy as well.
The trip is a wild ride all over the map, and as engrossing as it is, I confess I felt Biss’s writing wasn’t always up to the task. At times, the book gets a bit bogged down by a tangent that isn’t quite worthy of the boggage, and begins to feel more than a little unfocused.
Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed her perspective on this. There’s an awful lot of anger on both sides of the vaccine “debate” these days, and one of the things that puzzles me the most about that is the way in which it’s often coming from parents against other parents. This despite the fact that parents on both sides of the issue are acting out of identical, powerful, and innate motivations — the goal of protecting their children from harm.
This exploration of a real mother’s real fears in trying to figure out the best thing to do for her own child adds a level of humanity, empathy, and understanding to a conversation I have long felt, as a health educator of sorts myself, has been sorely lacking in all those elements. The result is a refreshingly compassionate approach to the subject, and one far more likely to make a difference to parents who are still wary of vaccinating than the insults and rage I so often see thrashing about on social media whenever the topic comes up. You can’t get someone to change their mind by calling them an “idiot,” especially when their chief motivation is fear. What you can do is try to approach them from a mutual desire to keep their child safe from harm, and to educate them patiently but persistently from that perspective instead.
Highly recommended to people on both sides of the conversation; this is a book I wish more people would read.