Along with handcrafting wooden furniture, writing subversive lyrics to innocent children's tunes, retelling my birth-story, and being a total (if warped) romantic, my husband possesses many other skills. Among them is a PhD in English and an alarming level of knowledge about all things James Joyce and the Beatles. He also teaches courses in Science and Ethics, and so when the Parent's Bloggers Network asked for reviewers of Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, I knew he would do a far better job than me.
I bring you Mr GingaJoy, PhD:
Late in November of 2002, according The New York Times journalist Donald G. McNeil, Jr’s article “When Parents Say No to Vaccinations (30 Nov. 2002), Vashon Island, a small, somewhat prosperous enclave across from West Seattle via a 20-minute ferry ride, experienced an outbreak of the measles. Not really a big deal overall, but the scenario is increasingly less rare these days, not because measles is becoming immune to the common vaccine, but because, like the residents of Vashon Island, many parents and guardians are becoming, in the common idiom, “philosophically exempt” from normal vaccination requirements: “exemptions that in Washington and several other states, including California and Colorado, can be claimed simply by signing a school form” (McNeil, 2002).
Vashon Island is, as I said above, no longer atypical; I have repeatedly heard on news reports and in articles in various newspapers and magazines, concerns over health problems that many parents directly attribute to vaccinations: mercury in the vaccine, a terrifying correspondence between the rise in vaccinations and the increase in autism, and horrifying side effects that often include illnesses worse than the disease treated by the vaccine. Although I firmly believe any of the pharmaceuticals available should safer and better, what the well-intentioned parents and guardians fail to realize, largely because most of them did not live prior to the vaccinations we take for granted, particularly those that give us the upper hand against polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis B and chicken pox, is that what may seem just minor illnesses remain potent dangers and are still possibly deadly.
Rubella, or German measles, according to Paul A. Offit’s Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases, may only cause a minor red rash on the person who develops the disease, but if a pregnant woman contracts it, her baby, more often than not, can be born blind, mentally retarded, or dead as a result. Mumps, which most people think of today as an amusing disease where the sufferer’s face simply swells up, is also very dangerous: “In the 1960s, mumps virus infected a million people in the United States every year. Typically the virus attacked the glands just in front of the ears, causing the children to look like chipmunks. But sometimes the virus also infected the lining of the brain and spinal cord, causing meningitis, seizures, paralysis, and deafness. The virus didn’t stop there. It also infected men’s testes, causing sterility, and pregnant women, causing birth defects and fetal death. And it attacked the pancreas, causing diabetes” (Offit 22). In under a decade, the vaccine worked well enough that we could laugh at Bobby Brady’s silly worries that he may get the mumps because he kissed a girl who was infected; it is amazing that a serious childhood disease could be the subject for comedy!
Offit’s book, therefore, comes at a very important time and stands, not just as an important biography of Maurice Hilleman, the man who nearly single-handedly worked to create most of the vaccines for the diseases listed above, but as a testament to our need to keep our children vaccinated. The book itself is a tour de force through Hilleman’s life and genius at being able to make exactly what was needed, and often to begin to make them before an epidemic erupted. For example, it was Hilleman who recognized that the flu virus recycled itself, so to speak, and that influenza pandemics seemed to come every sixty-eight years, realizing that “This is the length of the contemporary life-span ... [which suggests] that there may need to be a sufficient subsidence of host immunity before a past virus can regain access and become established as a new human influenza virus in the population” (Offit 19). Because of his actions at developing a flu vaccine against the virus that caused the 1889 pandemic (the H2 virus), thousands of Americans lives were spared in 1957 when it returned, whereas four million people, who did not have the proper vaccine, died elsewhere of the same virus. This same strain is set to attack us again in 2025 and Hilleman said, tongue in cheek, that his prediction for its arrival is more reliable than “the writings of Nostradamus or the Farmer’s Almanac (19); sadly, Hilleman died in early 2005.
Although the book is, in my opinion, a direct, unapologetic, and authoritative response to those who are problematically denying their children and wards the chances most of us take for granted, namely a life without worry over diseases that rampaged through prior generations, it does get quite heavy-handed in many places, and its tone too easily becomes a somewhat irritating homage to Hilleman. Offit’s sentences read more like the sentiments from Leonardo/Total Television’s 1963 cartoon The World of Commander McBragg, whose theme song claimed “With a canon in hand, he can beat any man. He can do anything ...” In that sense, the book is quite off-putting – I welcome a biography of a gifted scientist, researcher, and humanitarian, but I am skeptical of any narrative that offers a story that is so unabashedly glowing in every angle its reporting. Few obstacles, it seems, stood their ground before Hilleman.
In one case, Hilleman needed specially bred chickens to help him develop his measles vaccine (all vaccines are grown in animal or human organs, but most are initially developed in eggs). He went to Kimber Farms in Fremont, California, to ask the owner, W.F. Lamoreaux, if he could buy all of his leukemia-free chickens; he asked Lamoreaux several times for the chickens, suggesting that Lamoreaux could directly and positively affect future children’s lives, and to each request Lamoreaux refused. As Hilleman was leaving, “he stopped, turned around, and tried one more time. Recognizing a familiar accent, he asked Lamoreaux where he was from. ‘Helena’ said Lamoreaux. ‘Miles City’ replied Hilleman, extending his hand. ‘Take them all’ said Lamoreaux, smiling broadly. ‘One buck apiece.’ The first measles vaccine required a virologist and a chicken breeder. If both hadn’t been born and raised in Montana, the road to a lifesaving vaccine might have been much longer” (Offit 55). Scenes like this are often quite satisfying in movies, but in a biography, particularly a biography of a gifted scientist written by the head of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they come across as ostensibly amateurish and unbelievable.
Another example that is actually quite disturbing shows that not even Hilleman’s use of retarded children as lab rats gets more than a sentence of critical scrutiny. I must admit, I was surprised that when working on vaccines, many scientists went to asylums where retarded children were cared for to see how their drugs worked prior to giving it to other members of the human population. The unethical practice is immediately explained as just yet another humanitarian move on the part of Hilleman – many of the children in these institutions were abused, there was rampant over-crowding, which directly helped to spread the various diseases; therefore, Hilleman presented what he had done through in the most uncompromising terms: “My vaccine gave all of these children the chance to avoid the harm of that disease. Why should retarded children be denied that chance” (Offit 25)? Seemingly to counter the ethical problem presented, Offit does explain that Hilleman and others also used their own children to test the vaccines, which is my opinion makes the research even more problematic, despite the benefits that I and all others who have received as a result of their invention.
Rather than always attempting to show how Hilleman had only the greatest intentions in every act he did, it would seem more appropriate to explain that he was a man of his time: brilliant but often myopic and clouded as a result of his own perspective, when it came to his scientific desires and his past exploits. These oversights are explained somewhat via the prologue where Offit tells that prior to Hilleman’s death, he had a chance to sit down and speak with the gifted virologist and the book is a result of those conversations. I must admit, after reflecting on that statement, it is indeed clear that Vaccinated, in many places, reads more like a companion to an oral history transcript than an objective biography. A few more revisions could solve this problem.
Nonetheless, it is a good read. The historical and medical value of Vaccinated is without question – yes, any drug has side-effects, but the possibility of abandoning vaccines altogether is, as we see in the details of what life was like for many without them, terrifying and dangerous to everyone (it is interesting to note that when some parents and guardians stop vaccinating their children, we all become more susceptible to viruses again – it is called a reduction in the “herd immunity” which is actually strengthened when a majority of the population is resistant – they act as a barrier, stopping the disease from attacking even the most vulnerable). Hilleman’s contributions to medicine are obviously unquestionable, and it is a necessary biography of someone who did so much to help maintain the general health, in the same way that we, as educated individuals, must know the names of Jonas Salk, Edward Jenner, and Louis Pasteur; however, the text’s true worthiness is its response to the many people’s problematic denials of vaccines’ usefulness and their necessity in keeping everyone healthy – that above all else is what I see as Offit’s crowning achievement in writing this book.