Shots are unpleasant by nature, but award-winning writer Eula Biss explored just how complex the pain around the modern vaccination debate has grown with her third book, the recently published On Immunity: An Inoculation.
Among the topics from her Saturday discussion that kicked off the 25th annual Chicago Humanities Festival, Biss drew similarities between vaccine fear and politics, noting how "anti-vaxxers" are like the "1 percent" who dodge risk at the expense of others.
Biss shared the same idea during a recent conversation with The Huffington Post ahead of her CHF appearance.
"I became kind of excited by the idea that, wow, if we look at it this way, immunizing yourself and your children is a kind of radical social move," Biss said. "It's accepting a small degree of risk to protect a minority to which you don't necessarily belong.”
But fear and politics aren't the only things the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award-winner tackles in On Immunity. Diving into the history and motivations around vaccination, Biss injects the book with literary myth, metaphor and her personal experiences of navigating a hot-button issue while expecting her first child while tackling issues like sexism, race and class that touch the vaccination debate.
Deft with her metaphors, Biss summed up the current discourse on vaccination in America:
“It’s like politics: A lot of bluster, a lot of hot air, a lot of slinging of blame, and not a lot of thought or information exchanged.”
On the way sexism is viral in the vaccination debate.
“There’s this insinuation [in the vaccination debate] that if women weren’t so dumb and bad with science, there wouldn’t be this problem [of misunderstanding vaccinations]. One of the things I wanted to do with this book was refuse the idea that you can’t be rational if you’re emotional.”
Biss added, "I see it often as a reflection or rather amplification of the sexism that’s being leveled at a lot of other women less high-profile than someone like Jenny McCarthy. A lot of people will say 'How can you possibly take anything she says seriously? She was a Playboy centerfold, how can you listen to anything she has to say?'
"Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just rebut the ideas rather than the person itself?”
Why she'll stick up for activists like Jenny McCarthy -- to a point.
“[In McCarthy’s case] why do we look at the way she used her body as proof she can’t use her mind? I myself don’t agree with most anything that comes out of her mouth, but it’s not because she’s a model or blonde or a woman, but because she says things I don’t agree with.”
Biss firmly believes it's the message -- not the medium -- that should matter and makes a deft point at the end of On Immunity by introducing noted immunologist Polly Matzinger.
“Matzinger was also a Playboy Bunny,” Biss explained. “And she brought new thinking to immunology and brought radical change to a lot of fundamental theories, just by offering a different way of thinking. Here’s a woman who also, for a while, made a living by letting people view her body in a certain way.”
How “anti-vaxxers” are like “the 1 percent": sheltered at the expense of the 99 percent:
“Yes, there’s a higher rate of people living below the poverty line who aren’t vaccinated. But it’s much rarer for that to be a product of choice than a product of circumstance. Money isn’t the direct impediment -- vaccinations are subsidized. But getting to healthcare facility and getting health care itself will cost something. There’s the lifestyle that goes along with being low income, it’s high-demand: Working one or two jobs at a time, being a single mother.
"Then there are pockets of children who are upper middle-class or wealthy who are not immunized by choice. And the disturbing dynamic that can emerge is that a disease begins circulating in one of those pockets of unvaccinated children, but then of course it moves out and affects those children who are low-income who don’t have access to good healthcare and run a much higher chance of suffering the consequence to whatever disease in circulation."
... And how that affects races and classes unequally:
"You can see that in the 2010 pertussis (Whooping Cough) epidemic in California. Pertussis is complicated and it involved the failure of a vaccine as well as people not vaccinating. but it also involved wealthy people, like in Marin County, not vaccinating. Ten babies died in that epidemic. Nine of them were Hispanic. There’s a racial element there of who’s bearing the burden of this disease the hardest."
Why it’s impossible to “win” the vaccination debate:
"One of the more surprising things that has emerged in the past couple weeks are that people on both sides of the debate are upset with me. Some of the people who are staunchly 'pro-vaxx' think I’m too empathic towards the people who are 'anti-vaxx.' Like, ‘you’re wrong to extend any sympathy to people who decide not to vaccinate.’ And that’s a little dismaying to me.
"A live chat on Gawker became an argument with vaccinators over whether or not it was okay to call people who don’t vaccinate 'stupid.' They wanted me to be part of a jubilant festival of hating on anti-vaxxers. And that’s not something that’s comfortable for me or something that I’m willing to do."
On her book’s unconventional structure:
“Something that many people have paid attention to is the form or structure of the book. I have seen people responding to it with confusion: This book is set up in a confusing way because it’s not set up like a typical piece of pop non-fiction.
"But as a writer, in a nerdy way, I’m excited about the relationship between form and content and the 30 sections is a metaphor for our bodies."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story had an inaccurate transcription of Biss' statement: "It's accepting a small degree of risk to protect a minority to which you don't necessarily belong." The post has been updated to correct the error.