Empathizing, raising doubts and addressing fears in the vaccine controversy


Not differently from many other mothers, I actually started to delve into the world of vaccines when my first daughter was born. Before that, I only have old and indistinct memories about vaccines as one of the several youth’s unavoidable steps. After discussing in forums with other parents – before the advent of social network – I realized that what I used to dismiss as a non-relevant matter, was indeed a topic able to ignite passionate discussions, with data-quoting attacks and mutual excommunications on either side of the barricade.

To me, it looks like the parents’ world had suddenly split into two factions, one favourable to vaccines and one – the anti-vaxxers, as we began to call them since then – opposing them. The best word to describe those discussions is exhausting.

Having a scientific background, my first approach was to bring evidence of the efficacy of vaccines. And then data on the extremely low incidence of adverse reactions. And then on the cost/benefit ratio. And then on the epidemiology and mortality of diseases. And then… And then I realized how emotions – the strongest one being the protective instinct toward our own children – could thwart any attempt to keep the debate on a rational level.

I was thus eager to find a kind of narrative that – besides the objective scientific evidences – could put me into contact with the emotional world of those who do not vaccinate. Parents I felt empathically close to but whose reasons I could not rationally understand. I was missing the joining link between these two worlds, or at least a proper key to interpret their positions.

The book from Eula BissOn Immunity: An Inoculation – immediately proved to have the right features: it is written not by a medic but by a mother. It is not meant to persuade or make some people feel guilty. On the contrary, its aim is to empathize, raise doubts and explicitly address fears. The author feels awkward about lining up with one side or the other, since her view of reality is not of the black-or-white type. She does not identify herself in the oppositions – natural vs. artificial, pure vs. contaminated, emotional mothers vs. rational paediatricians – presented as ways to interpret society because of her refusal of the underlying metaphor of war. It is also important to note that recognizing similar metaphors and using less violent ones is a key pillar of the success of alternative medicine, as we will discuss later.

In this essay, the author describes the world as she sees it, thus offering a perspective on the society she is immersed in. Even if we are on the other side of the ocean, we can recognize some common traits with the context she defines: an amplified sense of what a parent could (should?) do to protect his sons, together with the feeling of helplessness in front of certain situations; the discussion between mothers, who seems to compete in order to prove their superior knowledge of these hot topics; the idea that we consider ourselves more as vulnerable targets for diseases than as possible vehicles that can spread germs.

To explain our feeling regarding vaccines, the author uses mythical figures like Dracula, who infects with his bite while sucking blood from innocent victims, as a metaphor for the syringe that, by sinking through the skin, contaminates the pure ones. Biss offers an interesting reading of the language implied by these metaphors. She explains that we need something that allow us to talk about our feelings, thus – as in the case of alternative medicine – if we feel intoxicated, then we need something able to purify us, if we feel inadequate we need something that strengthen us. And so on. To sum up, when we feel bad, we need something absolutely good. Most of the pharmaceutical drugs – she explains – are both good and bad (dose makes the poison) but when we look for comfort, we want something natural, since the equivalence between good and natural is by now well established in terms of common sense. Advertisers know it well: living in a technological world, our craving for what is uncontaminated, primordial and “bio” increases. Therefore, allowing children to develop immunity in a “natural” way, without external support, looks quite promising and fascinating.

Actually, vaccines are an exact match for this criterion, since they are a protected and controlled way to train our immune system to fight some specific pathogens. Virus are artificially domesticated, but the response deployed by our immune defence is absolutely natural, being it stimulated by our own organism and not in the lab of a pharmaceutic company. The sole “unnatural” trait of vaccines is that they do not provoke diseases as real viruses would do. Obviously, this is their precise purpose, but this mechanism is often claim by anti-vaxxers as a proof of the lower effectiveness of vaccines. Thus, on the one hand people do not get vaccinated because of the fear that the injection could contaminate their children, while on the other hand this “unnatural” immune response would be less effective.

Biss also discusses the belief that vaccines are for those “note like us”, a category that each time refers to different groups like immigrants, people with risky behaviours or the poor. A perspective that hides a perception of ourselves as those that always make the right choice, in contrast with the others and their wrong (or at least unaware) decisions. We do not perceive our health status as protected by herd immunity; thus, we are less likely to contribute to the general protection. But society is interconnected and our wellness depends from other people’s choices, in ways that often elude our senses. Therefore, it may happen that a fully vaccinated child from the middle class helps to fill the gap of the partial immunisation of a poor child, as well as vaccine coverage amongst the poor will contribute to the privileged classes’ protection.

By reading Biss’ book, my perception about myself and my role in the society has changed. The boundary between others and me seems now a little more blurry; the other people are different and, in some way, are also me. Such a perception emerges also during pregnancy, when the body is not only mine. And it is just in this occasion that one realizes that such interdependence is wonderful and a bringer of life.

It can be said that the word man should be substituted by the more proper humanity, since I live because other people live and so that they may live.


Sara Letardi

MMLAP and other EU Projects

Health system analysis to support capacity development in response to the threat of pandemic influenza in Asia
Making society an active participant in water adaptation to global change
Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation
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Solutions to improve CBRNe resilience
Network for Communicable Disease Control in Southern Europe and Mediterranean Countries
Developing the framework for an epidemic forecast infrastructure
Strengthening of the national surveillance system for communicable diseases
Surveillance of vaccine preventable hepatitis
European monitoring of excess mortality for public health action
European network for highly infectious disease
Dedicated surveillance network for surveillance and control of vaccine preventable diseases in the EU
Modelling the spread of pandemic influenza and strategies for its containment and mitigation
Cost-effectiveness assessment of european influenza human pandemic alert and response strategies
Bridging the gap between science, stakeholders and policy makers
Promotion of immunization for health professionals in Europe
Towards inclusive research programming for sustainable food innovations
Addressing chronic diseases and healthy ageing across the life cycle
Medical ecosystem – personalized event-based surveillance
Studying the many and varied economic, social, legal and ethical aspects of the recent developments on the Internet, and their consequences for the individual and society at large
Get involved in the responsible marine research and innovation
Knowledge-based policy-making on issues involving science, technology and innovation, mainly based upon the practices in Parliamentary Technology Assessment
Assessment of the current pandemic preparedness and response tools, systems and practice at national, EU and global level in priority areas
Analysis of innovative public engagement tools and instruments for dynamic governance in the field of Science in Society
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Computing Veracity – the Fourth Challenge of Big Data
Providing infrastructure, co-ordination and integration of existing clinical research networks on epidemics and pandemics
Promote vaccinations among migrant population in Europe
Creating mechanisms for effectively tackling the scientific and technology related challenges faced by society
Improve the quality of indoor air, keeping it free from radon
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Investigating how cities in the West securitise against global pandemics
Creating a structured dialogue and mutual learning with citizens and urban actors by setting up National Networks in 10 countries across Europe
Identifying how children can be change agents in the Science and Society relationship
Establishing an open dialogue between stakeholders concerning synthetic biology’s potential benefits and risks
Transparent communication in Epidemics: Learning Lessons from experience, delivering effective Messages, providing Evidence