Saturday, February 3, 2007

Roll up your sleeve: Today, the people who run around claiming various deleterious effects of vaccination are mostly fringe elements, you know: granola-crunchers who believe the government is poisoning us, or Christian Scientists who won’t take medicine. But before World War II, anti-vaccine sentiment was widespread in the United States. The Times Book Review looks at Arthur Allen’s new book, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, and wonders just how this happened:

Allen sees two events in these years as crucial to the growing public acceptance of vaccines. When America went to war in 1941 following Pearl Harbor, the health of the troops became a primary concern. Determined to prevent the medical casualties of World War I, where the number of American soldiers killed by influenza (44,000) almost matched the number lost in battle (50,000), military officials made vaccination mandatory. “Yes, the shots hurt and even caused illness sometimes, but the soldier survived,” Allen writes. “Returning from the war he wanted his children to have the same protection.”

World War II made vaccination fashionable. Polio turned it into a national crusade. No disease drew as much attention in postwar America, or created as much fear. Primarily striking children, polio killed some of its victims and paralyzed others, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, leg braces, iron lungs, deformed limbs. The quest for a means of prevention led to the largest public health experiment in American history, involving nearly two million school-age volunteers. When Jonas Salk’s killed-virus polio vaccine was declared “safe, effective and potent” in 1955, the nation celebrated as if a war had ended — and, indeed, one had. At a White House ceremony, President Eisenhower choked back tears as he told the young researcher: “I have no words to thank you. I am very, very happy.”

The polio vaccines of Salk and Albert Sabin marked a special moment in medical history. As late as the 1950s, parents had been encouraged to expose their children to diseases like measles, mumps and chicken pox in order to get them over with before adulthood, when the dangers increased. Now, there were vaccines for all these illnesses, and more were on the way. Some researchers spoke openly of a future without infectious disease. “Will such a world exist?” a scientist asked. “We believe so.”


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