Nursing Book Club


The controversial story of medicine's greatest lifesaver

By Arthur Allen; Norton and Company, 2007
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Reviewed By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN

Nurse Book ReviewIt seems so simple. there are diseases no one wants to have, say ones that cripple or blind, or ultimately lead to cancer. Scientists develop agents that prevent said diseases. We all get the vaccines, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Not quite. It turns out to be not so simple after all. People, especially children, sometimes get sick from the vaccine. Therapeutic agents aren’t always effective. Some people begin to think that the prevention is worse than the disease. Soon there is active resistance to routine shots, and the basic premise, never mind goal, of community immunity is lost.

Sounds like a bad place to be, yet it is exactly where routine immunization stands today in the United States. Arthur Allen describes the scene very well. Vaccines, of course, have a long history, not all of it pretty. Like much else in medicine, the vaccine world is riddled with false starts, greed and petty bureaucratic infighting. However, there is also genius, honor and truly genuine heroics.

We do not now have the polio, diphtheria, and tetanus that earlier generations dreaded. Smallpox hardly exists anymore. What we do have, however, is increasing numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate and who, at best, see routine immunization as overkill. At worst, they suspect vaccines as the source of myriad neurological disorders, not the least of which is autism.

There is no doubt that some children are harmed by the very substances that are supposed to help them. Remember the law of unintended consequences? Diseases evolve. Contaminants exist. Allergies are undeniable. There is also no doubt that the pharmaceutical companies are loath to admit these facts. The number of vaccine-producing firms has dropped precipitously, and the remaining few operate in constant fear of nasty side effects attributable to their agent.

Allen covers the debate and what gave rise to it thoroughly and in doing so raises penetrating questions. Is hepatitis B so endemic that every newborn needs to be vaccinated against it? What about lifestyle? Does every young girl need protection against human papilloma virus? While spelling out all the complexities, Allen also serves up information that any nurse would find useful. Did you know, for instance, that there is a “vaccine court” that arbitrates vaccine liability cases before they are heard in civil court? Did you know that the gut flora of third world children is so different from that of Americans that, in undeveloped countries, children require a longer series of polio vaccine? How about the rate of pertussis or whopping cough? It is climbing, you know.

Allen’s position is clear. He believes in universal vaccination, at least for common childhood diseases and, while he gives ample space to the naysayers, using current studies, he also refutes them with vigor. Was I persuaded? Pretty much. What is your position as a nurse? Or as a parent? Have you thought it through? I reviewed Vaccine because I thought it offered everything I like in a book: good historical background, up to date scientific information, and a clear look at of both sides of the story. I wasn’t disappointed, and I’ll bet you won’t be either.

Purchase Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver from Amazon

Written By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, PHN, BSN is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She has 30 years of nursing experience.

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