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The Consequences Of Anti-Vaccination In 'Keep You Safe'


Writer Melissa Hill uses her new novel to address a very urgent health topic, vaccination. Now, the story features two 5-year-old girls, Rosie and Clara, who have not been vaccinated. Rosie had a severe allergic reaction after her first vaccination. So her mom, a nurse named Kate, decides against further shots. Clara hasn't been vaccinated because her mother, a mommy blogger named Madeleine, does not trust the science. Both girls wind up catching the measles.

"Keep You Safe" is set in a small Irish town, but the topic of vaccination and parenting styles is just as contentious as it is in this country. And author Melissa Hill joins me now. Welcome to the show.

MELISSA HILL: Thank you for having me.

MARTÍNEZ: Vaccinations, mommy blogs, judgmental parents, jealous rivalries - Melissa, you could have called this "The Real Housewives Of Ireland" as far as I'm concerned (laughter). But let's start with the moms at the center of this. Kate O'Hara and Madeleine Cooper - how did you design these characters?

HILL: Well, with Kate, I suppose I wanted her to be your traditional mother. But also, there is a real element of struggle. She begins the novel struggling. She's just lost her husband, so she's a single mom. And she's trying to keep things going for her daughter. And her daughter Rosie has just started school. So if anything, that should be a time of a little bit of relaxation for Kate, where she starts to get her life back a little bit. But poor little Rosie, as you said, contracts measles quite quickly.

But Madeleine was a little bit more interesting to me, even from a personal point of view, because her ways of thinking aren't quite the same as the general mommy way of thinking, if I can.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And the blog is blowing up. Right? She's not just becoming someone that's using the blog as a way to blow off steam. It's starting to monetize.

HILL: Absolutely. So she gets on TV. And she was a marketer in her previous life, so she is well able to capitalize on her growing profile. And that's something that's very important to her because she is a mother of two, and she feels, herself, that she's getting her life back now that both of her kids are in school now.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Madeleine Cooper and her family - obviously more privileged than Kate O'Hara - we have a wealthy, successful couple against, as you mentioned, a struggling single mom grieving over the death of her husband. And Madeleine Cooper is portrayed as a bit more, maybe, superficial, eager to boost that profile that you've been talking about. Is there a reason you assigned that characteristic to Madeleine and her family, the one that chose not to vaccinate their kids out of a personal choice?

HILL: I wanted people to start out disliking Madeleine. Generally speaking, people who have these concerns about vaccination are painted a little bit as villains. So I suppose I wanted Madeleine to be quite easy to dislike from the outset.

MARTÍNEZ: But you do have sympathy, though, for Madeleine, despite the way her and her husband's decision affected others, her decision not to vaccinate her child and how that's affected Kate's child.

HILL: Yeah, I hope so. I do hope that people do sympathize with her, empathize with her. But I think most readers going into the book will probably start off saying - if you don't share her opinions - will start off saying, well, I'm not sure that I'm going to like this character. You know, she is the character that I think I'll love to hate. And I will automatically empathize with, you know, this struggling mom.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, your novel is pretty even handed on both sides of the vaccination issue. But choosing not to vaccinate - it goes against generally accepted science and is mostly based on anecdotal evidence. How would you respond, Melissa, to someone who says that vaccinations are about provable scientific fact and should not be a question of personal belief?

HILL: I mean, I completely agree with that 100 percent. But you mentioned anecdotal evidence. And the strange thing is so much of parenting is all down to anecdotal, you know, sharing of opinions and personal preferences, taking advice from other parents. It's all anecdotal. Nobody really thinks too much about science when you're talking about the safety of your own children.

I'll admit, when I - when my daughter was younger, my husband and I, we'd heard about the MMR controversy - the Wakefield controversy - and the potential connection to autism. And even though the link had been discredited, we're both writers. So we're naturally drawn to research, and we research and research and research. So we were hesitant about proceeding until we satisfied ourselves that - you know, that everything was good.

And yes, as it turned out, you do have to put that rational head on and say, look, the science just isn't there. Yet, these anecdotal stories from parents - you know, they're really quite heartbreaking. And they're quite difficult to just sort of brush away and brush aside. And what I found about it was that there was very little nuance in the argument. And that was why I felt I had to write this book.

MARTÍNEZ: But when it comes to a nuance, we're talking about something that - I mean, it just flies in the face of scientific reasoning. I mean, it - wouldn't denying vaccinations as being beneficial to kids almost be as bad as denying climate change is for the planet?

HILL: Absolutely. But again, we're talking about individual decisions for individual families. And that is so personal. I think one of Madeleine's arguments was, if you truly felt that your child was in danger, would you, you know, go against everything for the sake of the greater good? And that's a difficult question for many people to answer, for many parents to answer.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, you present the story of "Keep You Safe" as a mother's worst fear. Is this a cautionary tale, Melissa?

HILL: I think it is. I think - while on one side I did want to, I suppose, defuse some of the hostility surrounding the vaccination debate but show that a decision not to vaccinate, you know, provokes real consequences and comes with responsibilities outside of the personal.

MARTÍNEZ: Melissa Hill's new novel is "Keep You Safe." Thank you very much for talking with us.

HILL: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUARE PEG ROUND HOLE'S "COME/GONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.