Vaccination has greatly diminished death, illness and suffering in the world. But no other medical technology has been so dogged with controversy. The book chronicles the development of the key lifesaving vaccines since the 18th century. It tells the stories of great scientists and their discoveries, of the protests and pain along the stumbling path of progress. This is the first book to tell the whole story of vaccination for a general audience. In light of controversies about flu vaccine and autism, it will be of particular interest to parents, pediatricians, public health workers and anyone fascinated by medical history. Read More>>

Also Available: Table of Contents and Index

Arthur Allen is a Washington DC-based journalist who has written on vaccine issues in The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, Salon and Slate.


The Great Vaccine Debate

Autism is only the latest chapter.
Will it ever end?

The history of vaccination is criss-crossed with controversies. The allegation that vaccines cause autism is only the latest example. What is it about vaccines that attracts so much passion?

The obvious answer is that many vaccines–and most of the ones discussed in this book–are injected with sharp needles into healthy, innocent babies. The baby screams, the mom (or dad) winces. Sometimes the baby is fussy or feverish for a while–side effects that the doctor warns about. Rarely, some time later the baby shows symptoms of a more serious illness--chronic allergies or neurological problems, for example. These are problems that begin in infancy or early childhood. Vaccines tend to get blamed for these diseases because the diseases are more closely tracked and thus seem to be increasing, and because their etiology is somewhat mysterious.

As a parent in America, you learn to trust your pediatrician, but it’s a delicate relationship. The baby can’t say what’s wrong. Sadly, sometimes the expert doesn’t know either. At that moment, the trust relationship may be broken. Doc doesn’t know what made my son autistic–doesn’t know much about how to treat autism, either--so why should I trust him (or her) when he (she) says that it wasn’t the vaccines? Then too, the average child gets about 20 vaccine injections before the age of 2, which is many more than they used to. It’s not unlikely that a child will get sick after one of them, making the vaccine a handy scapegoat.

One hundred years ago, vaccines often did sicken babies. In those days, the only regularly given vaccine was a live virus that protected against smallpox. The vaccine was administered by scraping it into the skin. Sometimes the vaccine, or the wound, became infected with bacteria. Babies got fevers or painfully swollen arms, and sometimes died. The smallpox vaccine itself could cause allergic reactions, brain disorders, terrible rashes. Doctors were also starting to use diphtheria vaccines a century ago. These were antibodies grown in horses, and the preparation often included horse proteins, which caused allergic reactions. The whole cell pertussis vaccine, which was administered to babies in the United States from the 1940s through the mid-1990s, caused high fevers and seizures or “shock” events, in which a child would seem to mentally check out for several hours. Children generally recovered with no repercussions from these episodes, but some later did have neurological problems. Who could blame the parents for blaming the vaccine (although in fact, scientific studies suggest that DTP rarely caused lifelong problems)? When a vaccine sickens a child it’s a horrible thing. It’s a parent’s nightmare to take a tender young baby in to be protected, and end up with baby who has been harmed.

Read about these and other controversies in more depth in Vaccine.