On Immunity: An Inoculation

And I suspect that Coca-Cola, unpoisoned, is more harmful to our children than vaccination.

And when comfort is what we want, one of the most powerful tonics alternative medicine offers is the word 'natural.' This word implies a medicine untroubled by human limitations, contrived wholly by nature or God or perhaps intelligent design. What 'natural' has come to mean to us in the context of medicine is 'pure' and 'safe' and 'benign'. But the use of 'natural' as a synonym for 'good' is almost certainly a product of our profound alienation from the natural world.

as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” What

A trust—in the sense of a valuable asset placed in the care of someone to whom it does not ultimately belong—captures, more or less, my understanding of what it is to have a child.

But if disease is a punishment for anything, it is only a punishment for being alive. When

But refusing immunity as a form of civil disobedience bears an unsettling resemblance to the very structure the Occupy movement seeks to disrupt- a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.

But risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear.

Do people know which risks lead to many deaths and which risks lead to few?” the legal scholar Cass Sunstein asks. “They do not. In fact, they make huge blunders.” Sunstein draws this observation from the work of Paul Slovic, author of The Perception of Risk.

Do people know which risks lead to many deaths and which risks lead to few?” the legal scholar Cass Sunstein asks. “They do not. In fact, they make huge blunders.” Sunstein draws this observation from the work of Paul Slovic, author of The Perception of Risk. In a study that invited people to compare various causes of death, Slovic found that people tended to believe that accidents cause more deaths than disease and that homicide causes more deaths than suicide, when the opposite is true in both cases. In another study, people significantly overestimated the fatality rates of highly publicized or dramatic dangers like cancer or tornadoes. One could interpret this, as Sunstein does, to mean that most people are just wrong about risk. But risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear. Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us. When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs, as Slovic found in one of his studies, we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

For toxicologists, “the dose makes the poison.” Any substance can be toxic in excess. Water, for instance, is lethal to humans in very high doses, and overhydration killed a runner in the 2002 Boston Marathon. But most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose. And we extend this thinking to exposure, in that we regard any exposure to chemicals, no matter how brief or limited, as harmful.

idea that you cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you feel about it. Or, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.

If vaccination can be conscripted into acts of war, it can still be instrumental in works of love.

If we imagine the action of a vaccine not just in terms of how it affects a single body, but also in terms of how it affects the collective body of a community, it is fair to think of vaccination as a kind of banking of immunity. Contributions to this bank are donations to those who cannot or will not be protected by their own immunity. This is the principle of herd immunity, and it is through herd immunity that mass vaccination becomes far more effective than individual vaccination.

I know you're on my side," an immunologist once remarked to me as we discussed the politics of vaccination. I did not agree with him, but only because I was uncomfortable with both sides, as I had seen them delineated. The debate over vaccination tends to be described with what the philosopher of science Donna Haraway would call "troubling dualisms." These dualisms pit science against nature, public against private, truth against imagination, self against other, thought against emotion, and man against woman.

Infectious disease is one of the primary mechanisms of natural immunity. Whether we are sick or healthy, disease is always passing through our bodies. “Probably we’re diseased all the time,” as one biologist puts it, “but we’re hardly ever ill.” It is only when disease manifests as illness that we see it as unnatural, in the “contrary to the ordinary course of nature” sense of the word. When a child’s fingers blacken on his hand from Hib disease, when tetanus locks a child’s jaw and stiffens her body, when a baby barks for breath from pertussis, when a child’s legs are twisted and shrunken with polio—then disease does not seem natural.

Intuitive toxicology is the term that Slovic uses for the way most people assess the risk of chemicals. His research reveals that this approach is distinct from the methods used by toxicologists, and that it tends to produce different results. For toxicologists, “the dose makes the poison.” Any substance can be toxic in excess. Water, for instance, is lethal to humans in very high doses, and overhydration killed a runner in the 2002 Boston Marathon. But most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose. And we extend this thinking to exposure, in that we regard any exposure to chemicals, no matter how brief or limited, as harmful. In exploring this thinking, Slovic suggests that people who are not toxicologists may apply a “law of contagion” to toxicity. Just as brief exposure to a microscopic virus can result in lifelong disease, we assume that exposure to any amount of a harmful chemical will permanently contaminate our bodies. “Being contaminated,” Slovic observes, “clearly has an all-or-none quality to it—like being alive or pregnant.” Fear of contamination rests on the belief, widespread in our culture as in others, that something can impart its essence to us on contact. We are forever polluted, as we see it, by contact with a pollutant. And the pollutants we have come to fear most are the products of our own hands. Though toxicologists tend to disagree with this, many people regard natural chemicals as inherently less harmful than man-made chemicals. We seem to believe, against all evidence, that nature is entirely benevolent.

Observing that we have waged wars on poverty and drugs as well as cancer, Susan Sontag writes, “Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in

Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us. When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs, as Slovic found in one of his studies, we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

Perceptions of risk—the intuitive judgments that people make about the hazards of their world,” the historian Michael Willrich observes, “can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.” We do not tend to be afraid of the things that are most likely to harm us. We drive around in cars, a lot. We drink alcohol, we ride bicycles, we sit too much. And we harbor anxiety about things that, statistically speaking, pose us little danger. We fear sharks, while mosquitoes are, in terms of sheer numbers of lives lost, probably the most dangerous creature on earth.

Perhaps what matters,” Sunstein muses, “is not whether people are right on the facts, but whether they are frightened.” And people do seem to be frightened. We are locking our doors and pulling our children out of public school and buying guns and ritually sanitizing our hands to allay a wide range of fears, most of which are essentially fears of other people. All the while we are also, in our way, reckless. We get intoxicated, from the Latin “to poison,” for fun. This contradiction leads Sunstein to worry that regulatory laws based on the priorities of the general public maybe prone to a pattern of “paranoia and neglect.” Too much attention may be spent on minimal risks, while too little is paid to pressing threats. Paranoia, the theorist Eve Sedgwick observes, tends to be contagious. She calls it a “strong theory,” meaning a wide-ranging, reductive theory that displaces other ways of thinking. And paranoia very frequently passes for intelligence. As Sedgwick observes, “to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naïve, pious, or complaisant.” She does not believe that paranoid thinking is necessarily delusional or wrong, but only that there is value to approaches that are less rooted in suspicion. “Paranoia,” Sedgwick writes, “knows some things well and others poorly.

That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate wealth for others. And capitalism has already impoverished us culturally, robbing unmarketable art of its value. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.

The problem has not been finding a place where I belong, which is how a children's book might tell it, but of finding ways of insisting on belonging nowhere.

The tradition of the personal essay is full of self-appointed outcasts. In that tradition, I am not a poet or the press, but an essayist, a citizen thinker.

This is why the chances of contracting measles can be higher for a vaccinated person living in a largely unvaccinated community than they are for an unvaccinated person living in a largely vaccinated community.

Unvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more—like my child.

Vaccination works,” my father explains, “by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.” He means the minority of the population that is particularly vulnerable to a given disease. The elderly, in the case of influenza. Newborns, in the case of pertussis. Pregnant women, in the case of rubella. But when relatively wealthy white women vaccinate our children, we may also be participating in the protection of some poor black children whose single mothers have recently moved and have not, as a product of circumstance rather than choice, fully vaccinated them.

Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford.

We believe that modern-day Hitlers have deliberately adulterated the oral polio vaccines with anti-fertility drugs and contaminated it with certain viruses which are known to cause HIV and AIDS,” the chairman of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria maintained, urging parents to refuse vaccination.

We do not know alone. Dracula

When the last nationwide smallpox epidemic began in 1898, some people believed that whites were not susceptible to the disease. It was called “Nigger itch,” or, where it was associated with immigrants, “Italian itch” or “Mexican bump.” When