On Immunity
An Inoculation
Eula Biss
(Graywolf Press)
  • In her book Silent Spring, Rachael Carson claimed that DDT caused cancer. But after years of study, we find this is not so. But the claim and the resultant banning has devastated parts of Africa where the absence of DDT has caused a resurgence of malaria. "One African child in twenty now dies from malaria, and more are left brain damaged by the disease."

  • In Voltaire's time, "medical care was still the domain of women." But physicians and the Church (with its witch hunts) persecuted midwives. It is estimated that "a quarter to a third of women tried for witchcraft in colonial New England were known for their abilities as healers or midwives."

  • Robert Sears, who bills himself as "Dr. Bob," informs his readers that "Tetanus is not a disease that affects infants . . . and measles is not all that bad." (Those of us who grew up in large families may remember it with affection, when all our brothers and sisters got measles too.) Biss tells us that "tetanus kills hundreds of thousands of babies in the developing world every year . . . and measles has killed more children than any other disease in history."

  • "'Herd immunity' is the protection that comes to a population area by the fact that a majority of its inhabitants have immunity, either through the disease itself or through inoculation. "Immunizing less than 90% of the population against diphtheria could reduce the incidence of disease by 99.99%"
  • Ninteenth-century doctors often linked cancer to civilization, "the rush and whirl of modern life." Biss indicates that this is true, but the connection was flawed. "Civilization" in the United States has more than doubled our life span through modern medicine and medical practice. By extending our life span, "civilization unveiled" the truth of it. Cancer is a disease, above all, that takes the late-middle-aged and the aged.

  • The enforced vaccination campaigns in the Philippines and Puerto Rico were, according to Michael Willrich, not for the "health of the natives," but became "a justification for an ongoing colonial presence."

Ms. Biss has set out in On Immunity to see if she can clear up the present confusion of whether we should or should not subject our children to vaccination. She had a personal reason for this: she is now the mother of a son for which she has, already, had to make that decision.

She has, in the process, written a dandy book with a mesmerizing amount of research --- not only on questions of inoculation, but on health in general. Too, the interrelations of prosperity and health, discovering those behind the anti-vaccination forces (and the advocates), and, unlikely enough, a chapter or two on vampires. This includes her conclusion of the study of viruses. They "enter a cell and force its equipment to produce thousands more viruses." She disagrees:

    viruses strike me as more supernatural than industrial --- they are zombies, or body snatchers, or vampires.

Along the way, she spices up her writing with surprising facts --- like those above --- insights, for example, of the names of diseases that show "anti-immigration bias." Later outbreaks of smallpox in the Nineteenth-century, were called, among other things, the "Cuban itch," "Puerto Rican scratch," "Manila scab," and the "Hungarian itch."

She pauses long enough in her journey to show that the immunization against smallpox was brought to the west via Turkey or Africa or from Japan or China, where farm folk noted --- before 1850 --- that milk maids usually never had the typical pock-marked face of most people. The disease was then known as cowpox, and once one survived an infection, or was deliberately infected with the pus (common in the orient, or Africa), one was safe for life.

One aside that we especially liked had to do with the military language of medicine. "Popular publications . . . depict the body as the scene of total war between ruthless invaders and determined defenders." Thus one doesn't "get" cancer, one is forced to "fight" cancer.

However, those who practice alternative medicine prefer different metaphors, seeing illness, like the Chinese do, in terms of "balance" or "imbalance," or "balance and harmony." One writer even goes as far as thinking of it in terms of "a symphony." Beethoven's "Choral?" Schubert's "Unfinished?" Haydn's "Surprise?"

On Immunity is a fine exegesis; and there are many surprises. One that especially caught my attention was the theory that claims that you and I are sick all the time, we just don't know it. A biologist said, "Probably we're diseased all the time . . . but we're hardly ever ill." It's only when disease manifests as illness "that we see it as unnatural, in the 'contrary to the ordinary course of nature' sense of the word."

--- L. W. Milam
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