The nice lady had sugar cubes. My classmates and I lined up, single file, at Richboro Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia more than half a century ago, waiting for our taste. For a kid, it was a serendipitous moment — our parents were actually ordering us to consume sweets to keep us healthy.
These were no ordinary sugar cubes, though. We were in line to take the new oral polio vaccine. The droplets were placed on the sugar cubes to help the medicine go down. The oral vaccine was developed by scientist Albert Sabin, and it was thought to be even safer and more effective than the initial breakthrough created by Jonas Salk.
At the peak of the polio epidemic in 1952, more than 57,000 U.S. cases were reported, killing more than 3,000 people and paralyzing 21,000 in a single year. Hysteria was the norm in communities following frequent summer outbreaks. Families avoided public beaches and movie theaters because of transmission fears. Parents were desperate to inoculate their children from the ravages of a disease that claimed as many as a half-million lives around the world each year.
As we all know, the polio vaccine worked spectacularly. The disease was officially eradicated in the United States in 1979. Globally, more than 16 million people are able to walk today who would’ve otherwise become paralyzed, according to the World Health Organization, and 1.5 million lives have been saved.
I recall this important piece of American medical history as we mark National Immunization Month, because 2017 has seen a dangerous resurgence of the anti-vaccination movement.
Few Pennsylvanians have ever seen a child with whooping cough or the measles. Ask your neighbor to name a symptom of diphtheria, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Because we don’t see these diseases — because their awful realities aren’t visible in most of our schools and our neighborhoods — we risk complacency. Into our controversy-addicted, social media-powered vacuum step a few vocal celebrities, even politicians, willing to spread spurious myths that vaccines are riskier than the diseases they prevent. They are wrong.
Since the days of polio, our national immunization program has been a medical success story of staggering proportions. Vaccines are among the most proven and studied public health interventions of the last century. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that routine childhood vaccinations prevented 732,000 early deaths from 1994 to 2013.
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Perhaps the most pervasive myth in the anti-vaccination movement today is that vaccines can cause autism. This contention has been studied extensively and discredited by every respected medical organization and peer-reviewed journal that has examined it. The false linkage sprang up two decades ago when a British medical journal published a study suggesting that the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella could lead to autism in children. The study was retracted and condemned by the medical journal that published it as “utterly false.” The lead author, a British doctor, had his medical license revoked. But as the saying goes, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Fortunately, more than 90 percent of children today still receive vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and chickenpox. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than 80 percent of Americans believe in the benefits of childhood vaccines. But that number should be much higher.
Many first-time parents remember wanting to be reassured by their doctor that multiple injections are in their precious child’s best interest. This is a perfectly human impulse. But in the end, decisions to immunize should be based on science and decades of experience with serious disease outbreaks in communities where too many parents choose not to vaccinate.
We have to push back against the anti-science movement. The truth is, we don’t yet know what causes autism. There are thousands of diseases affecting the human condition that biomedical researchers have not yet unlocked. The answer is to intensify our research and investment into conditions like autism, trusting that the time-tested scientific method will ultimately reveal the answers and lead to discoveries in how we diagnose and treat the condition.
The process of scientific discovery takes an enormous commitment of time and resources. We must not, in desperation, turn to junk science and medical conspiracy theories when science doesn’t give us the answers we want, when we want them. If families choose to forgo proven vaccines that prevent disease and avert pandemics, they’re not reducing their child’s risk; they’re compounding their community’s.
The goal of biotechnology is to move more diseases from the medical books to the history books. That’s what we did with polio, and that’s what we’ll continue to do by debunking irresponsible vaccination myths so science trumps fear.
• Jim Greenwood, who represented Pennsylvania’s Eighth Congressional District in Congress from 1993 to 2005, is the CEO of BIO, the world’s largest trade association representing the biotechnology industry