Summary of On Immunity by Eula Biss

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of On Immunity by Eula Biss

Do vaccines cause more harm than good? That seems to be the question asked more and more recently. The discovery of the vaccine is, without doubt, one of the greatest medical discoveries of our time. It saved countless lives when the human race was being ravaged by smallpox and aided in its eventual eradication. However, despite the facts surrounding vaccines, there are still those who doubt their usefulness. 

There have been many studies that have reported some disadvantages of having children vaccinated. Some of them were straight-up fraudulent, but others were more robust. This only further caused panic amongst parents. With all the talk about vaccinations causing autism floating around, why should they put their child at risk? Who should they really believe?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Why vaccinations scare some parents
  • To be vaccinated was to bear the mark of the devil and other misconceptions
  • Mass vaccinations were seen as an act of suppression
  • Vaccines don’t only impact the individual, there is a much bigger picture

Key lesson one: Why vaccinations scare some parents

The debate about vaccinations has raged ever since they were first introduced. The first hesitations came from the fact that, early on, there were risks involved with them. In the nineteenth century, when they were first introduced, the administration process allowed the possibility of transmission of diseases like syphilis. This was because immunizations involved applying pus from a blister of another vaccinated person to a cut of another person. There were even some vaccines that contained tetanus which unfortunately led to death. 

Even though the administration of vaccines have come a long way since then and are strictly regulated, still some concerns linger. The latest concern is that vaccines are responsible for autism in children. It came about because vaccines contain mercury and aluminium. These substances, in large amounts, cause damage to the nervous system. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a Physician conducted a case study on 12 children which linked the measles or MMR vaccine with severe behavioural syndrome and autism. This led to an immediate decline in measles vaccinations. However, sometime later, it was shown that Wakefield was actually paid by a lawyer who had a lawsuit against a vaccine manufacturer. The study was retracted however, the damage was already done. 

Parents keep receiving the warning of vaccinations and aim to keep their children safe by not vaccinating them. There is further fear of receiving multiple vaccinations at the same time and overwhelming their immune system, not to mention the fear of an allergic reaction. It is rare, but allergic reactions can occur with some vaccines. In addition, parents often fear the development of asthma as a result.  

Key lesson two: To be vaccinated was to bear the mark of the devil and other misconceptions

Even beyond the unfortunate infections caused by vaccinations, in the beginning, people who bore the mark of vaccination also faced discrimination. They saw their vaccination scars as a sign of the devil. They were linked to impurity, pollution and sexual intrusion – all because a foreign substance from another human or animal was injected into a person’s body. This led to the archbishop, in 1882, describing vaccinations as sinful. 

Nowadays, people also feel as getting vaccinated is somewhat impure. People have denied exposing their children to hepatitis B and human papillomavirus vaccinations as they both vaccinations against STDs. In fact, when the human papillomavirus or HPV vaccine was allowed to be given to young girls to protect them against uterine cancer once they become sexually active, many parents deemed it inappropriate. They went as far as suggesting that the vaccination would promote sexual promiscuity. 

The bad ideas about vaccinations don’t end there. There have even been reports of people associating vaccinations with minority groups as the diseases they prevent are more prevalent in areas struggling with poverty, prostitution and addiction. Since it is often thought that minorities are ‘high-risk groups’ people do not like to have any link to that as they believe they are superior. Even physicians are guilty of spreading this misconception. For example, the hepatitis B vaccine was first only advised for high-risk groups that included prisoners, intravenous drug users and gay men. The rates of hepatitis B did not drop when only these groups were vaccinated – it only dropped when mass vaccinations were introduced.

Then there are those who believe that vaccinations are unnatural. A child is seen as pure and untainted but once vaccinated, they have been degraded by the introduction of a foreign and unnatural, chemical substance. In a society that is ever seeking to be more natural and organic, vaccinations are the enemy. Pharmaceutical companies have never been known to be wholesome and honest, so how can they be trusted with the health and body of a pure child? There have even been some parents who have sought other ways to build immunity in their children like purchasing lollipops infected with chickenpox or having pox parties. 

Key lesson three: Mass vaccinations were seen as an act of suppression

When mass vaccinations were implemented in former colonies, they were not exactly accepted gratefully. Many of the people were used to being used and deceived by Westerners, there was no reason to trust them regarding the vaccinations. Especially since they often did not explain it to them and instead just injected them with some substance they were not familiar with. 

In as recent as 2003, the Polio Eradication Campaign in Nigeria was stopped as people believed that it was a ploy by Westerners to sterilize Muslim children and infect them with HIV. Anthropologists believed that it was the timing that was the problem. The vaccination campaign occurred at the same time that Iraq and Afghanistan were being invaded. Thus they connected it as an invasion on all Muslims. Things got so bad that people in Nigeria actually felt the need to defend themselves. Unfortunately, this led to nine polio vaccinators being shot. The thing is, they weren’t exactly unjustified in being suspicious. Vaccination campaigns were used as a cover story by many governments to infiltrate certain countries. In Pakistan, for example, the CIA used a fake vaccination campaign to collect genetic material that could lead them to Osama Bin Laden.

Going even further back, women are often more hesitant than men to get vaccinations as it was previously a way for men in medicine to get back at women. This may seem strange but early on, women dominated medical care and had knowledge about herbal remedies that helped people. However, around the fifteenth century, out of jealousy male physicians deemed them witches that often led to the death of these women. When men were once again in charge, they were not entirely successful and often made people sicker on purpose to be able to cure them. Therefore, they were not trusted by women. Even though this happened so long ago, it is still carried throughout generations and has made women cautious of vaccinations.

Key lesson four: Vaccines don’t only impact the individual, there is a much bigger picture

Vaccination may be an individual decision, but the more people in a single community who decide to get vaccinated, the more effective the result will be. In a sense, it is much like an election, just as every vote counts so does every vaccination. People who have been vaccinated are not likely to spread a virus. This means that if enough people in a single community get vaccinated, the chances of a virus spreading is pretty slim. This is known as herd immunity. 

This means, overall, that it is more likely for a vaccinated person in an unvaccinated community to get sick than an unvaccinated person in a vaccinated community. A vaccinated community is extremely important for those who cannot get vaccinated like infants and cancer patients. Since they cannot be vaccinated, they rely on those around them to be. There are even some people who can’t obtain immunity even though vaccinated and are still at risk if they are surrounded by people who choose not to vaccinate. The choice to vaccinate, therefore, may be a personal one but it impacts everyone in your community. And, you must not forget that the overall wellbeing of your community will always affect you. 

Indeed, the pros of vaccinations outweigh the cons. As we have seen in recent years, measles outbreaks can be devastating and far riskier than vaccinations. To give you an idea of how much riskier consider one of the consequences of measles, encephalitis. The measles or MMR vaccine is a vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella. As a side effect, encephalitis occurs in one in three million vaccinated people. In contrast, measles infection in unvaccinated people results in encephalitis in 1 in every 1000 cases. That is a huge difference. That in combination with the fact that mumps can cause male infertility and rubella can have serious implications for pregnant women, make the MMR vaccine extremely important.

The same can be said for other vaccines. The vaccine against diphtheria has a low risk of causing any side effects after it is taken whereas the disease has a death rate among children of 20 per cent. Even the risks associated with chickenpox, including secondary infections causing shingles, are much worse than the vaccination which prevents not only shingles but any serious implications of the disease. It is much better to take the risk of having the vaccination than to deal with the risks of the virus. 

The key takeaway from On Immunity is:

The debate regarding vaccinations has raged on since its very introduction into medicine. Early administration methods were in fact, questionable to say the least and led to people being wary of them. Many stories in the past have been blown out of proportion or have been believed without actually questioning them. These stories have led to the fear surrounding vaccinations and parents often think they are protecting their children by non subjecting them to potential harm. The truth, however, is that vaccinations are needed. They prevent much more harm than they cause and we should begin to trust in them for the wellbeing of our community and ourselves.

How can I implement the lessons learned in On Immunity:

Don’t be so quick to believe negative reports about the implications of vaccinations. Do your research and figure out what is true and what is not. Always keep in mind that the negative news will always be louder and linger longer than the good news. So don’t be fooled and write off a vaccination as being harmful. They are important and needed.

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