Vaccines

May 7, 2019

There’s been a lot of controversy about vaccines lately, so let’s talk about it. Lawyers put a lot of effort into dealing with medicine, science and history. You can’t fight about rights without being able to talk about the consequences. So let’s talk about the science of vaccines – in 1776!

That’s right. In the American Revolution, General George Washington quarantined his soldiers and gave them cow pox before sending them to the battle lines. It turned out that milk maids in Europe and elsewhere didn’t get smallpox. The practice was widely used in Asia and Africa. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the wife of a British Ambassador to Turkey, is credited with introducing it to England in the early 18th century. Doctor Edward Jenner is credited with investigating, improving and publicizing it in the late eighteenth century.

Washington’s revolutionary soldiers did get sick but with a much less dangerous form of the disease. If you don’t know what smallpox is like you don’t want to know. The closest modern comparison that I can think of and that has been in the news is ebola. It’s ugly, painful and deadly. Washington protected his soldiers, and their resistance to smallpox helped him stave off the British.

Skip ahead a century and a half. The method of inoculation changed somewhat but I had the scar to prove it for decades. Vaccines were developed for other diseases. Those of us old enough to remember the world of the early 1950s will remember the little cardboard piggybanks of the March of Dimes in almost every store. The March of Dimes collected to wage a battle with polio. Polio terrified my generation. I remember scenes of children in what were called iron lungs – steel barrels with a hole for the children’s heads. That was a nightmare for me but one that lasted all day. I couldn’t stand the idea that I might have to be cooped up that way 24 hours a day. My dad taught in a Brooklyn high school and we packed the car on the last day of school and drove straight out of New York City to some place up state. We imagined that we would be safer there than in the city but in fact we knew someone on the shores of Lake Champlain, quite distant from New York City, who had come down with polio.

When Jonas Salk came up with the first polio vaccine, all of America seemed to breath a collective sigh of relief. The Sabin vaccine came out shortly after and it was better. But either vaccine decimated your chances of being paralyzed by polio. Most vaccines for other diseases became available after my wife and I became adults. But vaccines are a major reason for the decline of child mortality. Parents no longer expect to bury some of their children.

I eventually got both polio vaccines because the Peace Corps administered it to volunteers before sending us abroad. Actually, they inoculated us against everything they could. However you reacted to the needle prick, you appreciated that the Peace Corps was doing its best to protect us. They also assigned a U.S. Public Health doctor to take care of us: Dr. Robert Carey later spent sixteen years as dean of the medical school at the University of Virginia and he’s been a close friend ever since. The Peace Corps took care of us. It didn’t want any of us coming home in a coffin or a body bag.

Thank you, Dr. Salk and Dr. Sabin, and all those who have worked to develop the vaccines that have protected us; thank you America and thank you to the Peace Corps for seeing that we got them. I appreciated all the vaccines I’ve had.

— This commentary was recorded for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 7, 2019.

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