More Time on Your Hands? Reading about Public Health

If you’re lucky enough to have more time on your hands because of the coronavirus pandemic and are looking for some interesting reads, I’ve got some books for you.

I work in higher education, and my campus has just gone on spring break. Following spring break, however, like many schools, in-person classes will be cancelled for online distance learning, and we’ve suspended all university-related programming. Social distancing is a word I’ve never heard so frequently, and it means that some of us will be preferring time alone out of consideration for others, to keep this thing from spreading.

On one hand, I’m a little sick that we can’t seem to talk about anything else. But on the other hand, I have a hard time focusing on topics that don’t encompass this pandemic. So if you’re like me, I have some interesting reads on very opposite sides of the public health spectrum that should keep you entertained and informed when it’s hard to focus on topics other than health.

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin

This detailed look at the origin of anti-vaccination sentiment was originally published back in 2011. It explores the various sources and realities of parents’ choices to not vaccinate their children and the public health crises that can occur because of those harmful choices. Mnookin chronicles the last 150 years of this anti-vaccination rhetoric and how little it’s changed. These days, the anti-vaccine sentiment is most typically associated with terrible research from 1998 and has led to a fear of children becoming autistic or that the ingredients (such as mercury) in the vaccine would harm children.

The first chapter opens with the 2006 narrative of a woman whose child contracted Hib, Haemophilus influenzae type b. Hib is an infection that the doctors didn’t expect the child to have because most infants receive multiple doses of the vaccine. Their various tests for strep throat, etc., had actually worsened the child’s rapidly closing throat until an older doctor was called in and recognized the illness. The mother had chosen not to vaccinate because her chiropractor put the fearworm in her ear about studies linking vaccines to autism.

The Panic Virus stays pretty squarely focused on the medical reality of disinformation in public health, specifically vaccines. But I found it interesting that that exact mother was afraid of her child becoming autistic because there actually were a lot of autistic children in her community—something I would personally expect could be a reason to have a more open mind about neurotypologies, but in this case, did not got that way.

Eugenics in the Garden by Fabiola López-Durán

This book is a look at another harmful way of thinking, eugenics, but from a very different angle than I’ve ever heard before: urban planning, architecture, and design as mediums for building toward a “perfect form of humanity.” López-Durán’s introduction says it best: “This book examines the dynamics of this form of eugenics, which first appeared in France and then spread throughout Latin America—the only region in the ‘developing’ world where eugenics was systematically implemented and institutionalized.” (López-Durán 3)

Lamarck’s theories of evolution “set the stage for a particular orientation toward environmental-genetic interaction, empowering an apparatus that made race, gender, class, and the built environment critical measurements of modernity and progress.” (López-Durán 4)

The connection between a book about urban planning, architecture, and eugenics may not seem immediately connected to public health. But if you know that mortality rates of pregnant women of color are dire, you can imagine the sort of underlying bias that directly affects healthcare. Moreover, López-Durán makes the explicit connection for us by looking at how certain medical workers supported eugenics theories and how their authority helped it carry weight in being institutionalized practice in Latin America.

Work Cited:
López-Durán, Fabiola. Eugenics in the Garden Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting Of Modernity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018.


About This Column: With occasional parentheticals à la Robin McKinley, If This, Then That connects the dots between niche interests for LSQ readers and the books that suit them.