Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Five of the best books on vaccines

Seth Mnookin is the Co-Director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, won the National Association of Science Writers 2012 “Science in Society” Award and the New England chapter of the American Medical Writers Association’s Will Solimene Award for Excellence.

He discussed five of the best books on vaccines with Sophie Roell at The Browser, including:
Arthur Allen’s Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. I suppose the title says it all. I thought this was just a fantastic book.

Arthur is a wonderful writer. He covers the huge sweep of the story — he goes back to variolation and Edward Jenner and then takes it all the way through the development of vaccines, the nationalization of vaccine programmes, various social pressures, up to some of the more recent controversies. From my experience I know that when I’m trying to synthesize a huge amount of information, it becomes harder and harder to think about the writing itself — as opposed to just spitting everything out. But he does it in a way that at least I, as a reader, never felt it was just a document dump. For me, it had that page-turning quality all the way through, one because it is life-and-death in a lot of cases, but also because he was able to frame all of the individual stories in a way that was gripping. At each step along the way, I wanted to find out what happened next — even when, in most cases, I knew the answer. I know that polio has been eliminated in the United States. I know the story of Edward Jenner. One thing Arthur illustrates is how in almost every good thriller, the mystery isn’t what the ending is going to be, it’s how you get there. He’s able to build the mystery of how we got to each step along the way really nicely.

The other thing that comes out of the book, which I didn’t realize quite the extent to which it was true, is that, historically, vaccinations were quite dangerous. It’s not something we want to think about too much now, but…

I agree. That is one of the things that makes the book so impressive. In the world we’re living in today, the issue of vaccines is so freighted, or, as Arthur says in the title, so controversial, that it can be really tricky to write something that, on the one hand, supports the evidence for vaccines and, on the other hand, takes a really clear-eyed look at what some of the problems have been. Arthur definitely does that. You don’t get the sense, reading his book, that, “Oh this is a promotional book written by someone who is just a cheerleader for vaccines or for public health…” He really looks at where things, and how things went wrong, and talks about it. He isn’t afraid to be critical.
Read about the other books Mnookin tagged at The Browser.

The Page 69 Test: Arthur Allen's Vaccine.

Writers Read: Arthur Allen (July 2007).

--Marshal Zeringue