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Books on immunization and vaccine-preventable disease
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Deadly Choices by Paul Offit, MD


Basic Books, 270 pages, $27.50
Edward Jenner invented a smallpox vaccine in 1776, and since then there have been outspoken anti-vaccine activists. It doesn’t seem to matter that immunization saves countless lives and dollars; some individuals are adamantly against vaccines and believe they cause more harm than good. In Deadly Choices, vaccine advocate and developer Paul Offit delves into the many facets of the anti-vaccine movement, from Andrew Wakefield to Jenny McCarthy to Dr. Bob’s alternative schedule. This fascinating exploration of the history of the vaccination conflict offers obscure surreal facts, for example the Raggedy Ann doll was designed to represent a child supposedly turned floppy by a smallpox vaccine. Offit also analyzes how misinformation and mistrust has caused children to suffer needlessly. And he celebrates the people who are working to make vaccines safe and a trusted part of a healthy community.

 


Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich


Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27.95
Pox: An American History examines a unique period of time when smallpox ran rampant and public health officials did everything they could to stop it. From 1898 to 1904, a smallpox epidemic swept the United States and the government pulled out all the stops, from forcible vaccination at gunpoint to kidnapping people into quarantine “pest houses.” There were countless lives saved, but at what cost? Historian Willrich chronicles the lessons learned during this critical period when the balance between individual rights and the greater good was in flux, paving the way for more compassionate immunization policies.
Willrich has a credible voice. A decade ago, his own son’s bowel was injured by a rotavirus vaccine, yet he still believes immunization is a powerful tool to keep communities heathy. His meticulous research draws parallels between outrage 110 years ago and today’s vaccine controversy, which he thinks is one of the most important contemporary public health crises. History buffs will get a complete and satisfying dose as the author paints a vivid picture of turn-of-the-last-century America. The anti-vaccinators of the early 1900s were a small but vocal group, yet they couldn’t prevent the eventual eradication of smallpox in 1980.

 


Vaccines and Your Child by Paul Offit, MD & Charlotte Moser


University Press, 264 pages, $16.95
Parents want straight-up, no-nonsense facts when it comes to their children’s health. Vaccines and Your Child is a handbook that addresses several concerns a parent may have with immunization, including side effects, ingredients, vaccine-preventable diseases and safety concerns. Every answer is supported by scientific research. The section on ingredients, for example, gives the rundown on such additives as egg proteins, gelatin, mercury and aluminum, as well as addressing complicated issues including where the Vatican stands on using human cells in vaccine. The authors are honest about vaccine risks, separating fact from myth. There is really nothing that they shy away from; they clearly believe that science-based research and sound knowledge are crucial for parents who have questions about vaccinating their children.
Vaccines and Your Child is an invaluable manual to guide parents through immunization decisions. The authors are directors of the venerable Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the information they offer is clear, concise and ultimately reassuring.

 


The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear by Seth Mnookin


Simon & Schuster, 429 pages, $26.99
“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” As the opening quote of The Panic Virus infers, bad news travels fast. It’s hard to unscare people, especially those who believe vaccines cause autism, which they don’t. Journalist Seth Mnookin chronicles the case of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who introduced the idea that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine causes autism. Wakefield has since lost his medical license, the study was retracted, and an investigative journalist has described his work as an “elaborate fraud.” Mnookin also gives an even-handed history of vaccines, why people are so afraid of them and why they are crucial to a healthy world. He also examines how our electronic culture is a hotbed for misinformation. This book probably won’t permeate closed minds, but it’s essential for those who want to learn more about vaccines in our culture and world.

 


Nemesis by Philip Roth


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 280 pages, $26
One of the reasons the immunization rate is falling is because young parents don’t know what vaccine-preventable diseases look like. Many of today’s generation are complacent; they don’t remember the horrible effects of measles, mumps and rubella. But our parents or grandparents can tell harrowing stories, especially about the polio scourge that terrorized the U.S. during the 1940s and ‘50s. Nemesis, by great American novelist Philip Roth, is set in 1944 Newark, New Jersey. The story follows Bucky Cantor, a 23-year-old P.E. teacher and summer playground instructor whose bad vision keeps him out of the service. Against the backdrop of a war overseas and a polio outbreak in his own neighborhood, Bucky strives to live a good and honorable life. “This was real war too,” writes Roth, “a war of slaughter, ruin, waste and damnation, war with the ravages of war — war upon the children of Newark.” For those too young to remember, Roth paints a vivid example of the paralyzing fear that preceded vaccines, and why immunization is a modern miracle that the older generations revere.

 


Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell


Riverhead Books, 238 pages, $25
Those who think vaccine-preventable diseases aren’t so bad need only read this engrossing Hawaiian history book to discover how disease nearly wiped out an entire culture. In 1778, Captain Cook was the first European on record to set foot on the Hawaiian Islands. Environmentally, it was a paradise, though socially, the islands at that time were divided into separate fiefdoms. It would be a few more decades until King Kamehameha the Great united the islands into the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810, and a lot of Polynesian blood was spilled during his battles. But that loss of life was slight compared with the number of Hawaiian people who were killed by imported diseases. According to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, prior to Western contact, Hawaii had an estimated population of 300,000 to 1,000,000 people. By 1919, the native Hawaiian population had dwindled to 22,600. Many people had died from smallpox, whooping cough and other diseases, including King Kamehameha II and his wife who died of measles in 1824 while visiting King George IV in England.
In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell chronicles the damaging effect European civilization had on the Hawaiian people, not just bringing disease but alcohol and firearms as well. Yet that extreme loss of life and the attempted destruction of the surviving Hawaiians’ traditional ways made them strong. Today, thankfully, their culture thrives---but it was a very close call. This compelling and irreverent account of how Hawaii became what it is today serves as a cautionary tale: Vaccine preventable diseases are dangerous; immunization saves lives.