Are you an Anti-Vaxxer?

Why do we question vaccines? And who are the thought leaders involved? Are they respectable, or are they hacks? And, more importantly, what can we glean from past debates about vaccines? In Elena Conis’s new book, we get a sense of this – and so much more.

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In the newest edition of Social History of Medicine, I review Elena Conis’s new book, Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization.

In tracing over 50 years of vaccine controversy, we get to know the key institutions, opinion leaders, and major ideas that have driven debates. We are exposed to federal law, feminism, and, oh yeah, Jenny McCarthy and the mass media.

She began her career in 1993 as a nude model for Playboy magazine and was later named their Playmate of the Year. McCarthy then parlayed this fame into a television and film acting career. She is a former co-host of the ABC talk show The View.

McCarthy has also written books about parenting and has become an activist promoting research into environmental causes and alternative medical treatments for autism. In particular, she has promoted the idea that vaccines cause autism and that chelation therapy helped cure her son of autism.

Both claims are unsupported by medical consensus, and her son’s autism diagnosis has been questioned. McCarthy has been described as “the nation’s most prominent purveyor of anti-vaxxer ideology”, but she has denied the charge, stating: “I am not anti-vaccine…”

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In Conis’s book, we get a better understanding of how someone like McCarthy can drive the policy process and shape our View on vaccines.

Here is a brief excerpt from the review:

“Vaccines are significant medical interventions that naturally induce powerful economic, social, and political reactions. Vaccines have helped shaped narratives about American scientific and technological ingenuity, as well as therapeutic progress, yet they have also been ‘cast in the image of their own time’ (p. 10), The pathway to effective, accepted vaccines has been neither simple nor straightforward.

In Elena Conis’s penetrating new book, Vaccine Nation, this fluid negotiation over vaccines for polio, pertussis and Human papillomavirus (HPV), among others, is on full display. We are exposed to a ‘wildly diverse set of influences, including Cold War anxiety, the growing value of children, the emergence of HIV/AIDS, changing fashion trends, and immigration’, that have shaped vaccine acceptance—as well as resistance (pp. 2–3). Conis, a former journalist, offers punchy and accessible prose as she skilfully traces the ebb-and-flow of vaccine history from the 1960s to the present.”

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If you’re interested, PBS has done a great job covering anti-vaccination in the U.S.

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