Let me state at the outset that I am in favor of vaccinations. I’m very grateful to all those folks whose work has given us some measure of victory over so many horrible diseases. (And to the animals involved, whose sacrifices are usually even greater.) That said, it needs to be more clear that those little jabs to which we subject ourselves, our babies, and our soldiers, are neither miracle nor magic.
There are always risks, and the only reason for a vaccination is if the risks from the disease exceed those from the vaccine itself. I first had my eyes opened to this when I asked my doctor why smallpox wasn’t on the list of recommended vaccines for our children: With smallpox all but wiped out, and biological terrorist attacks not even on the horizon, it would have been foolish to subject children to the dangers of the smallpox vaccine when their chance of being exposed to the disease was infinitesimal.
Worse than the natural, inherent dangers are the human failings: mistakes, hasty or slipshod work, ignorance, pride, political infighting, collusion, and cover-ups. Much of what I said in my comments on The Virus Within applies to this book as well.
When I first heard that the polio vaccine that my generation received as children had been contaminated because it was produced using monkey kidneys, I was incredulous. What did monkey kidneys have to do with producing vaccines? As Edward R. Murrow asked, when he interviewed Jonas Salk, the vaccine’s creator, “The only thing I know about this vaccine is that it starts with a monkey’s kidney and it ends up going into a child’s arm. Could you explain a little to us the process in between?”
Polio was a terrifying disease that reached from the poorest slum dweller to the president of the United States himself, and pressure to develop a vaccine was enormous. (The recent theories that Franklin D. Roosevelt had Guillain-Barré Syndrome rather than polio are immaterial—whatever the actual cause of his problems, it was believed at the time to be polio.) The task was especially daunting because the polio virus could only be grown in living monkeys: Inject monkey with virus, wait for monkey to get sick, kill monkey, extract virus-containing fluid from ground-up spinal cord. Repeat until you have enough virus to work with. Develop a vaccine to test. Inject vaccine into monkeys. If they get sick, start over—the vaccine isn't safe. If they don’t, infect the monkeys with the virus. If they get sick, start over—the vaccine doesn’t work. If they are protected, proceed to human field testing, first on a small scale that would require the use of hundreds of monkeys, then a larger trial with more monkeys, and finally mass testing requiring hundreds of thousands of monkeys. If your vaccine passes all the tests and is approved for production, it will take tens of millions of monkeys to produce enough for mass immunization. Even if that were possible, it would take years—and America in the late 1940’s did not want to wait years.
Enter the Harvard Medical School laboratory of John Enders, which demonstrated that it was possible to grow the polio virus in certain tissue cultures. (Enders and two of his coworkers eventually received the Nobel Prize in medicine for this work.) Their report was largely ignored by polio researchers, but Dr. Jonas Salk, then at the University of Pittsburgh, grabbed the idea and ran. By growing the polio virus in ground-up monkey kidneys suspended in a nutrient broth, Salk was suddenly producing large quantities of virus in little time. At last, a vaccine seemed possible.
And so it was. Those of us who were born post-vaccine cannot fully appreciate what a miracle the polio vaccine seemed to parents who lived in terror of this disease, which killed and paralyzed and particularly targeted children. But it wasn’t quite a miracle, because there was a time-bomb hidden in the vaccine: SV-40, a monkey virus that survived inadequate purification procedures to contaminate nearly every dose of polio vaccine between 1954 and 1963, affecting about a hundred million people in the United States alone. Even after the contamination was discovered, the dangers were downplayed—contaminated batches were not recalled, but continued to be used—because it was widely accepted that the monkey virus, being from a different species, would do no harm.Unfortunately, that proved to be a false and costly assumption. SV-40 is now known to be carcinogenic, and since the mid-1990’s has been discovered in many formerly rare brain and bone cancers, as well as lymphomas and leukemias. Is this a cause and effect connection, or a coincidence? The government is still downplaying the issue, as you can see from the CDC’s much less alarmist version of the story. They may be right, and I certainly understand their dilemma, since they must weigh the risks of vaccines against the dangers of disease. Eradication of polio worldwide had nearly been accomplished by 2003. However, some Muslim clerics in Nigeria expressed fears that the vaccine had deliberately been contaminated in order to give Muslims AIDS or to render them infertile, and the vaccination program fell apart in that country. Before long polio had returned to twelve neighboring, polio-free countries, and hundreds of children had been paralyzed. So I understand why the government might be afraid of panicking parents into refusing all vaccinations for their children. Still, I’d be a lot less likely to panic if I were convinced that the government were doing its best to find, publish, and advertise the truth. The Virus and the Vaccine has not increased my confidence that this is the case.