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Nathanial Hawthorne, a great American teller of tales, published Rappaccini's Daughter in 1844. It is a grim story of young love, perverted science and parental possessiveness. Old Dr Rappaccini, a master of botanical poisons and horticulture, has raised his beautiful daughter Beatrice with the same loving care that he has devoted to his toxic plants. Indeed, she has been so imbued and infiltrated with poison that her breath and touch are toxic, lethal; any man who touches her will die. But when Beatrice is courted by the medical student Giovanni, Rappaccini approves of the match and contrives to exert his toxic transformation on the suitor, so that the two can consummate their love. The tale ends tragically. From his professor, Giovanni obtains an antidote to the toxicity, which he gives to Beatrice. She dies, and Giovanni is left in her place, unable to practise his medical craft or to re-enter human society without causing harm.
What possible relevance can this gothic tale have for the twenty-first century? There is a growing population antagonistic to contemporary life, suspicious of technology and science, in search of pure and simple living conditions; and a hazard of this flight from modernity is that healthy children are transformed from free-roaming social individuals to creatures confined at the mercy of their parents. One of the greatest achievements of the last century was the prevention of epidemics and disabling infectious diseases such as smallpox, poliomyelitis, rubella and measles—by immunization. The cessation of smallpox vaccination, we now realize, was premature because the virus was never made extinct. Stocks of frozen virus were preserved in the USSR and the USA, accessible to biological warfare strategists and scientists. With more than twenty years' worth of susceptibles, the earth's population is ripe for a devastating epidemic. Yet we are in danger of repeating this error, on a smaller scale, with other diseases. Today many young parents, perhaps believing that medicine has conquered infectious diseases and without personal experience of the devastating consequences of polio or congenital rubella syndrome, have decided that the risks of immunization are greater than the risks of disease. Like Rappaccini's daughter these children are not safe: their immunological naivety is a risk to themselves as well as to their community. They are both victims and vectors.