Essay — From the January 2013 issue

Sentimental Medicine

Why we still fear vaccines

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My son is vaccinated, but there is one immunization on the standard schedule he did not receive. This was meant to be his very first shot, the hepatitis B vaccine administered to most infants immediately after birth. I was aware, before I became pregnant, of some fears around vaccination. But I was not prepared for the labyrinthine network of anxieties I would discover during my pregnancy, the proliferation of hypotheses, the minutiae of additives, the diversity of ideologies. Vaccines contain preservatives, adjuvants, and residues from their manufacture. They were developed from aborted fetuses, were tested in Nazi concentration camps, and are not vegan. And vaccines are metaphors, if popular literature on vaccination is to be read as literature, for capitalist corruption, cultural decadence, and environmental pollution.

The reach of this subject had exceeded the limits of my late-night research by the time my baby was due, so I visited the pediatrician I had chosen to be my son’s doctor. I already knew that some people would consider a medical professional a dubious source of intelligence on vaccination. The money pharmaceutical companies are pouring into research, they would say, has made the information available to doctors dirty. But not all doctors are informed by research, as I would discover, and there is more than one route to unclean thinking.

When I asked the pediatrician what the purpose of the hep B vaccine was, he answered, “That’s a very good question,” in a tone I understood to mean this was a question he relished answering. Hep B was a vaccine for the inner city, he told me — it was designed to protect the babies of drug addicts and prostitutes. It was not something, he assured me, that people like me needed to worry about.

All that this doctor knew of me then was what he could see. He assumed, correctly, that I did not live in the inner city. It did not occur to me to clarify that although I live in the outer city of Chicago, my neighborhood looks a lot like what some people mean when they use the euphemism “inner city.” In retrospect, I am ashamed by how little of his racial code I registered. Relieved to be told that this vaccine was not for people like me, I failed to consider what exactly that meant.

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is the author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays.

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