Thursday, December 8, 2011

Infection Connection: Double Shot!

The Panic VirusThis isn’t about any particular bacteria, virus, or other wee beastie. This is a review of two books concerning infectious disease, one fiction and one non-fiction. (By the way, I’m up to 50 books read this year. My goal is within sight!)

First is one I’ve been wanting to read for some time, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, by Seth Mnookin. Of all the articles and a few books I’ve read about the anti-vaccine movement, this reigns supreme. Mnookin does an incredible job of discussing the devastation of infectious disease, the development of inoculation/vaccination, and how the anti-vaccine movement began and took hold.

He also masterfully skewers the arguments put forth by the anti-vax crowd, although I would agree with him that they aren’t just anti-vax; they are anti-science. It is inexcusable for anyone to simply ignore the facts of the high rate of efficacy and low rate of complications of vaccines, not when children’s health and public health are at stake. One of the rationales for some is that there is so little exposure to these infections that they aren’t worried about their child getting it. Do you know why there is so little exposure? Because vaccines have been so successful! It is simply not acceptable to say, “I know, because I have mommy-instincts.” Science simply does not work that way. My great-uncle Sid died in his early twenties of diphtheria. People have forgotten that these infections can and do kill people.

Mnookin gives plenty of space to Andrew Wakefield, the unethical, sorry excuse for both a doctor and human being who started this whole ridiculous mess with his flawed and unscientific paper published in the British medical journal Lancet. The paper has since been withdrawn, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in England. His studies were horrible, including contamination from control strains of the measles virus, and not including positive and negative controls in each experiment. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of laboratory tests knows that in order to confirm your results, you must have known positives and negatives included to show that your assay is working properly.

Mnookin also provides much criticism to the media, who gave this story legs despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a good thing for journalism to be fair and balanced, but sometimes, the other side of the argument does not bear up under proper examination; such false and harmful misinformation should not deserve equal treatment. There are two sides to every story, and sometimes one side is simply wrong.

A fantastic book, and one of my new favorites. Anyone who is sitting on the fence or has doubts about immunizations should read this. Anyone (like me) who believes that vaccines save lives should also read it, in order to bolster your arguments if you’re ever in the situation where you want to debate the subject with someone who really doesn’t get it.

Year of WondersNext is Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. Although a fictional book, it is based on the real village of Eyam in Derbyshire, which voluntarily quarantined itself during the Black Plague of 1665-66. Brooks puts a human face on sterile statistics; it’s one thing to know that Europe possibly lost one-half to two-thirds of its population, or that bubonic plague has a 40-90% mortality rate if untreated. It’s quite another to read about Anna Frith, a housemaid who must face the death of loved ones and see her rural village felled by the Plague.

Anna is a likable character, compelled to learn, and she is strengthened by her trials. The same can’t be said for many of her fellow villagers, who at times descend into irrational fear and murderous ways. The sadness that Anna had to deal with brought tears to my eyes several times throughout the book. The horrors of the deaths and losses, her triumphs and the failures of others, shows how devastating such a pandemic would be upon even our modern-day world. Although our medical knowledge and support is substantially greater now, the stress placed upon our infrastructure and society would still be devastating. People haven’t changed so much in four hundred years or so to think that there wouldn’t be blame to be laid upon others, certain ethnic groups or religious sects forced to be the scapegoat.

This book reminded me very much of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Although Porter’s novella dealt with the 1918 influenza pandemic, the psychological and social strain of such a devastating and lethal pandemic is the same. The horrors of such widespread disease and panic is brought to life in both books.

Those who would condemn vaccinations would be wise to read both of these books and learn more about just how bad infectious disease can be.


  1. This is an excellent and informative post Beth. I read Year of Wonders and it indeed does a good job of showing the horrors of disease.r

  2. this makes me glad that a) i got my flu shot and b) i kept my pink-eye infested self at home.


  3. Looking forward to reading the first one.

  4. I'm looking for Year of Wonders today!

  5. Just put The Panic Virus on my reading list. Sounds like a very interesting book.


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