It seems like every time I turn around these days I run into another story about vaccination. To me the message seems clear: everyone without a contraindicating medical issue should get vaccinated, especially for measles, but probably in general. Refusing to do so endangers the health of those who can’t. It seems pretty straightforward to me, but when I recently read Eula Biss’s, On Immunity, I discovered there’s a lot to be said about vaccination and how it relates to embodiment, identity, power, and choice. Especially when explored by Biss, an elegant and thoughtful writer and thinker.
I’ve read a lot about herd immunity lately, but, of the accounts I’ve run across, only Biss explains it in the context our larger humanity:
Herd immunity, an observable phenomenon, now seems implausible only if we think of our bodies as inherently disconnected from other bodies. Which, of course, we do.
By saying this she raises, and addresses, the obvious question—but why? This observation leads her to explore how our sense of the relationship between the individual and the community has been shaped by the Enlightenment and by capitalism.
When she addresses the political dynamics of vaccination, Biss points out that unvaccinated children (who tend to be the children of white, highly educated, relatively well-off mothers) pose a threat to under-vaccinated children (who tend to be the children of poor mothers).
She insightfully locates one source of these dilemmas in our booming culture of fear, the same fear that leads many parents to deny their children the developmental experience of solitude:
What has been done to us seems to be, among other things, that we have been made fearful. What will we do with our fear? This strikes me as a central question of both citizenship and motherhood.
I could go on. I am amazed that a book about the vaccination controversy and one mother’s quest to decide whether or not to have her own child vaccinated could be so rich, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking. But it is.