For my Biohazards column in Salvo Issue 50, I decided to write about vaccines since it was a hot news topic. I’m sure you’re asking the same thing I was asking about three days before the article’s deadline, “Why, Heather, did you decide to write about vaccines?” I ended up turning this article in two weeks late, something I don’t recommend if you are thinking of becoming a full-time writer and you want to keep your editors happy. Mine, mercifully, was quite patient with me as I wrestled this article into submission.
I wanted to address the topic of vaccines without belittling parents. I’m generally in favor of vaccines, but the rhetoric online was so belittling that I wanted to write something I hoped would be helpful and fair. I believe most parents really are trying their best to do what is right for their child. As a bioethicist, I think it is appropriate for parents to ask “Is it safe? Is it necessary?” about any medical procedure or treatment for their child.
I thought the best way to answer these questions would be to start with the history of vaccines. After all, many of us have never lived through the diseases that vaccines are designed to prevent, and understanding these diseases can help us understand the risks versus benefits of taking vaccines to prevent them. Then I thought I could write about the science of vaccines—how they’re made, herd immunity, etc.–and close with a paragraph on some of the ethical issues, such as giving a medication to an otherwise healthy individual. Simple, right?
Oh boy, was I wrong. This topic was anything, but simple. It turns out debates about mandatory vaccination have been around for as long as the United States has had mandatory vaccinations. And that history is rife with mistakes and misunderstandings on the part of the government, pharmaceutical companies, environmentalists, feminists, parents, the medical industry, and the media. After researching the article, I am even more in favor of vaccination than before, although I question the necessity of government mandates for every type of vaccine.
If you want to research the history of vaccines, don’t Google it. Google will give you blogs and pundits that aren’t helpful, although the CDC’s website has some good information about current vaccine recommendations and known side effects. Here are a few resources I found helpful:
The best resource on the history of vaccines in the United State was probably Elana Condis’s cleverly titled book Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunizations (University of Chicago Press, 2015). She obviously tried to approach the topic as unbiasedly as possible.
Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation (Graywolf Press, 2014) is a story about a mother and essayist coming to grips with the paranoias and pressures that come with having a new baby. She is part of the highest demographic of people who voluntarily chooses not to vaccinate their children, and she candidly talks about the pressures she faced on whether or not to vaccinate her child.
I also enjoyed reading Algis Valiunas’s article “Jonas Salk, the People’s Scientist” (The New Atlantis, Number 56, Summer/Fall 2018, pp. 99-128). This article provided important historical context in the U.S. race to find a polio vaccine, including the hope that polio, like smallpox, could be completely eradicated.