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March 24 is International Tuberculosis Day. In the midst of a global virus pandemic, why is this significant? Because it was 100 years ago that Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin of France announced the success of the BCG vaccine in preventing the tuberculosis disease.
At the time, its symptoms of chronic cough, fever and shortness of breath afflicted 150 of every 100,000 people in the United States. At its height, the case rate was 53 percent per 100,000, however, with the development and distribution of the vaccine, in 2020, there were only 540 reported tuberculosis related deaths in America. Worldwide, thanks in part to vaccination and education efforts around the globe, in the last 20 years the mortality rate of TB around the planet has plummeted by nearly fifty percent.
One hundred twenty years ago, smallpox was also a plague upon our country and our world. Cleveland, for example, in 1901, with a population about the same as today's in metropolitan Linn and Johnson Counties, saw 1,300 victims of the disease which causes rash, blistering, fever and often death.
The following year, vaccinations against it were required in order to enroll in public school, and with more than 100,000 inoculations administered, by 1903 there were only 22 deaths caused by the illness in the city. From a malady that killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide in the 20th century, smallpox, through vaccination programs, was medically classified as eradicated in 1977.
Rubella, known more commonly as the 'German measles,” as recently as the mid 1960s afflicted 12.5 million Americans with its fever, rash and diarrhea. More tragically, by being passed to the fetus in the womb, it led to learning disabilities, vision impairment and low birth weight in 20,000 infants that year.
In the 1970s, Paul Parkman and Harry Meyer, the latter holding the equivalent position within the National Institutes of Health at the time as is now held by Anthony
Fauci, announced the release of a vaccine against rubella, and by
1990 there were less than 2,000 cases of 'German measles” in the United States.
Another persistent pestilence in the country, and around the world, was pertussis, an illness spawned by bacteria resulting in a buildup of fluids in the lungs, causing chronic coughing known as whooping cough. In 1934, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderling, teachers from Michigan, along with renowned African American chemist Loney Gordon launched a study of 5,815 school students, giving them shots of a vaccine they had produced against the disease. The study proved the inoculations to be 90 percent effective.
From a staggering 270,000 cases of pertussis nationwide in 1935, after World War II, through a cross-country immunization effort, by the 1990s there were less than 3,000 cases of whooping cough reported in the United States.
To battle these illnesses, and assure that vaccines to prevent them were safe, 99 years ago, in 1902, Congress passed the Biologics Control Act, also known as the Virus Toxin Law. With it, the Hygenic Laboratory of Public Heath was established as a government-run facility to test and regulate biologics (medical products made from living sources such as people, plants, animals and microorganisms). It coordinated the verification of immunizations and serums as safe for human use.
The HLPH was renamed the National Institutes of Health in 1930 with its research center and headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Today, the compound sits on a high hill of several hundred acres and is crowned by more than 50 buildings, including the National Library of Medicine, the largest biomedical research library in the world (having moved there from its origins in Ford's Theatre after plays ceased following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln).
While information on the studies of immunology are housed within its 50 miles of largely underground bookshelves, the actual process of verifying the validity of all biologics was transferred to the Food and Drug Administration, operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, in 1972. One of the vaccines against the COVID-9 virus they will be reviewing is a recent one by Novavax, a pharmaceuticals company also located in Maryland.
The Novavax vaccine is different from others by Pfizer and Moderna in that rather than injecting a strain of the virus into the body, it inserts only a small portion of it, known as the spike protein, which triggers the immune system, but because only part of the virus is introduced, cannot result in clinical COVID-19.
The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is one of the medical facilities nationwide that is participating in the trial study of the new vaccine which hopes to test 30,000 volunteers in the protocol by spring. The project in Iowa is headed by Dr. Patricia Winokur, dean of Carver College of Medicine and an infectious disease specialist. She also spearheaded the university's clinical trial of the Pfizer vaccine late last year.
So, as we observe International Tuberculosis Day in March, think of the vaccines that have virtually eradicated illnesses that would otherwise take the lives of grandmothers, grandfathers, moms and dads, and their children, and remember the virologists, including those at the UI, who have helped to make certain that these diseases will not afflict your grandchildren, great grandchildren, or any other generation to come.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.