On Immunity: An Innoculation

Nursing Book Club

On Immunity: An Innoculation

By Eula Biss (Graywolf Press, 2014)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

On the inside cover flap of her new book, On Immunity, prizewinning author, essayist and critic Eula Biss offers this intriguing disclaimer: “This book is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. It is an inoculation only against maladies of a metaphorical nature.” From there, she begins a thoughtful examination of the history of vaccination and public health mandates.

New Mother’s Journey

Biss, the daughter of a doctor, became interested in the topic of inoculation while pregnant with her first child. Following a time-honored tradition, she set out to explore parenthood by reading the writings of others.

The result was an anxiety-producing plunge into what she calls “the landscape of new motherhood.” Seeing her role as protector of her newborn, she was caught up in the challenges of balancing the risks and benefits of everything from hand sanitizers to cribs.

Since her son was born in a year when a novel flu strain quickly spread from Mexico to the U.S., she also became interested in the concerns about the possible dangers of vaccination. She found that there is now entirely too much information available about what is or what may be potentially harmful in this world.

Weighing Moral Imperatives

In contrast to many recent debates about vaccination, which focus on trying to prove or debunk competing claims, On Immunity confronts weightier philosophical issues, forcing us to reexamine our own value judgments about ill health and the right to our own bodies.

That we need to protect our health is a given, but is it a moral imperative to also protect the health of those around us? Is immunity for all a right or an obligation? Can affluent people make the personal choice that their children should forego vaccination to avoid potential side effects knowing that people with more limited access to health resources will suffer greater consequences from the disease?

The book’s fundamental question is whom we are ultimately responsible for protecting. Every healthcare worker has at some point gone to work with a mild contagious illness, however often we’ve advised our patients not to do the same. Should we worry more about infecting patients and colleagues or about the appointments that will need to be rescheduled or cancelled because of our absence?

As nurses, we’re familiar with these questions, but we don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about them. The answers aren’t easy.

Language and Metaphor

On Immunity is also an exploration of the language and metaphor surrounding health and illness, which makes this slender volume a delight to read. Biss examines the concept of inoculation as science, as an art form and as opinion.

The author is a senior lecturer in the English department at Northwestern University and she writes in a gently persuasive way that allows opposing viewpoints to glide together without fireworks. Her book may not change your opinion on vaccination, but she will certainly allow you to view it through a different lens.  

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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