Perhaps the very worst aspect of humanity is our illusion of independence. Humans have evolved into self-thinking, -centered, and -indulgent individuals that have, for the most part, lost site of the microcosm that we inhabit and that inhabit us.
“Our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater
body composed of many bodies.”
-Queen Elizabeth I
Eula Biss takes this social stance in her fascinating new book On Immunity: An Innoculation, which should find itself on every mothers’ reading list. The birth of Biss’ son transformed her from a relatively fearless woman into a MOM–one who will do quite literally anything to protect her child. Like any mother, Biss second guesses many of the decisions she has made on behalf of her son, including vaccinations.
Unlike the literary metaphors Biss uses to describe her own fears, the scientific terms and analogies that percolate throughout the media portraying vaccines do more of a disservice than they are helpful. When we call vaccines a “shot” or a “jab” we depict a fearful violation of our bodies. Syringes and needles are also often associated with the spread of disease, not the prevention of it. Even terms like herd immunity–that we can protect those few individuals that cannot be vaccinated if enough people in a community get their immunizations–provoke a sense of foolishness. One of Biss’ friends once told her that she did not believe in herd immunity because it was “only a theory that applied mainly to cows”. The irony of this particular ignorance, that the term vaccination derives from the latin word vacca, for cow, is both hilarious and disturbing. But the perception exists because of the analogies we’ve derived. Most immunologists, myself included, use a similar set of war metaphors to describe how different cells of the immune system attack a pathogen like the various services of the military. Dendritic cells and macrophages are like special ops or intelligence units that go in and gather information. T cells are the Army or Marines that provide ground control at the center of the invasion. B cells are like the Air Force or Navy that fire off missiles from afar. They’re all required to control the foreign, alien, or pathogen and perform best when in sync, working together. But we should really stop thinking of our immune system as a war machine designed to attack microbes because in reality, the cells of the immune system are continuously being influenced by their constant contact with the bacteria and viruses within us. In fact, the human body is composed of 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells–you read that correctly, we are more bacteria than we are human! So instead of thinking of the immune response as a military attack, we should think of it as a protective parent, a shield that helps to keep us safe from harm, but also allow us to experience and be influenced by the other life forms around (and inside) us. This analogy is both accurate and likely to foster a more positive perspective on immunity and vaccination.
“Herd immunity is implausible only if we think of our bodies as inherently
disconnected from other bodies. Which of course, we do.”
Analogies of mythology and fiction percolate throughout Biss’ book and exemplify her literary prowess as much as they do her concerns about motherhood. Vampirism is Biss’ ultimate metaphor, drawing on current fictional trash as well Bram Stokers’ infamous Dracula. To Biss, vampires include the infectious pathogens themselves, “Viruses strike me as more supernatural than industrial–they are zombies, or body snatchers, or vampires.” Her own child even displays facets of vampirism, “My baby slept by day and woke at night to feed from me, sometimes drawing blood with his toothless jaws.” And there was a vampire within herself, as she required a blood transfusion shortly after giving birth, “I was living off blood that was not mine.” Vampirism is the ultimate metaphor of life today. From a “1 percenter” like Count Dracula who continuously feed off the weak and battle the Buffy-like opposition, to the everyman vampire Edward who’d definitely drink True Blood if it was available in his universe, you couldn’t hide from this metaphor if you tried.
Of course the topic of vaccines is never complete without considering how the media has propagated fear, not of vampires per se, but of a social disorder of all things. Based on a now retracted study of 8 children who developed autism shortly after receiving their MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, this fear was hard to rationalize at the time, let alone today. I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say that studies of hundreds of thousands of children have proven that vaccines do not cause autism. Ironically, the most problematic aspect of vaccines is that they work. Unlike a drug, which relieves symptoms of a disease, a vaccine prevents it altogether. So the kicker is, how do you know you ever needed the vaccine in the first place? At the end of the day, the media is much more like a vampire in the way it can reproduce and dominate. Misinformation that finds a host may enjoy immortality on the internet in its own vampiric undead form.
“A problem with a vaccine is not the evidence of the inevitable shortcomings of medicine, but evidence that we are, indeed, going to destroy ourselves.”
Despite the fact that vaccines work and we have used them to completely exterminate smallpox from the world and are on the verge of eradicating polio, there still exists this fear and apprehension that there is something unnatural about vaccination. The intuition that things are either harmful or not is ridiculous. Water, if consumed in enough volume, can be harmful. We also have this false belief that nature is benevolent. Are natural chemicals truly less harmful than man-made ones? (Umm….no!) We’ve returned back to our analogies. “Natural” is of course pure, safe, and good. Well, the natural infection that anyone my age or older had as a child, a relatively innocuous, but annoying one called chickenpox seems to support this belief. However, ask anyone who has had shingles how they felt about it. Chickenpox is a member of the herpes virus family–when you have the infection, you have it for life. When the chickenpox virus reawakens later in life it causes the disease known as shingles. Shingles is not just an itchy rash, it is a painful, blistering eruption of your skin accompanied by muscle and joint aches so bad many patients are bedridden. And this can be prevented altogether with the chickenpox vaccine. So, when you take your child to a ‘chickenpox party’ instead of receiving the vaccine, you are not only exposing him/her to a week of itching rash, but also the potential of painful shingles as an adult.
Finally, consider this: nothing can be proven 100% safe. If foods were monitored by the FDA for safety, due to the high incidence of allergies, the first thing to come off the shelves of our supermarkets would be all peanut products. Because of all that we are exposed to on a daily basis, from the foods and liquids we scarf into our digestive tracts to the chemicals in the air and products we use to clean or purposefully rub on our bodies for blemish-free skin, purity is extinct. “If we do not yet know exactly what the presence of a vast range of chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breast milk might mean for the future of our children’s health, we do at least know that we are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other. Life and immunity is a shared space–a garden we tend together.”