The viral blast from the past

Recently, Iowa has joined the ranks of states who have seen cases of measles, a viral disease entriely prevented by vaccine. Before a vaccine was developed in 1963, millions of people caught the diease each year. Brain swelling and death were the most serious side effects. In 2000, public health officals believed the United States was free of measles. However, in 2019, we have seen more cases than in 1994. Click here for a map and more information.

On Twitter, Dan Rather mused “Perhaps the anti-vaccine movement and the resurgence of overt racist rhetoric have something in common. As firsthand knowledge of the horrors of lynchings, the Holocaust, the scourge of horrific diseases fades with time, we forget that deadly pestilences demand our vigilance.” Some of this is true. Young parents haven’t measles. Except for cases of extreme flu and HIV, people have forgotten how horrible viral diseases can be, with their resistance to antibiotics. You can’t kill a virus because it isn’t alive. It needs your cells to reproduce. How does your body fight a virus? It has to assemble the correct chemicals to take it down and to do this, it has to learn about the virus through exposure. Vaccines provide this training.

Much of the disinformation here in the United States is associated with Russian disinformation campaigns. We even have a crop of politicians going against doctor’s advice on vaccines and other important health issues. I’ve encountered locals who invoke their own version of god to justify ignoring doctors’ advice.

People are even refusing to vaccinate their pets. Who is most likely to believe this misinformation? “A (rural) middle age, Midwestern man with high-school diploma, low income and a tendency not to think his vote matters much: this is the identity of the average American anti-vaxxer,” However, on social media, the typical anti-vaxxer is female, sheltered, and has a sense of persecution. Because they believe they are being persecuted, arguing with them makes them cling to their beliefs even more.

It comes as no surprise that a number of these people are simply complacent. Some might engage in “magical thinking” –the hope that something is out there beyond simply what we know at this time. Both complacency and magical thinking go together to create a “it can’t happen to me” attitude. I asked a doctor in a city which has seen a measles outbreak if the cases were mostly poor people. He said, no, poor people in general appreciate medical care and trust doctors. They also know bad things can happen. This epidemic has roots in the middle class.

Thanks to scientific advances, some viral killers have been almost entirely wiped from the face of the Earth. Polio is one of those killers. Although it was always around, it spread as an epidemic in the early 1900s with break- outs occurring each summer. In the United States, the epidiemic reached its peak in the summer of 1950 with 57,628 cases, 3,145 resulting in death and 21,269 were left with some form of paralysis.

Treatments included keeping the joints warm and moist by wrapping the patient in wet wool and moving the joints to prevent paralysis.

Some patients suffered chest muscle paralysis, could not breathe on their own and were put into a ventilator known as the iron lung. Each device cost as much as an average home.

Infant in iron lung

At the University of Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk launched what was then the largest human trial in history, injecting nearly 2 million American kids with a potential vaccine. His method, made from an attenuated virus, was funded by public donations via the March of Dimes. When it was announced that his vaccine worked, Salk was hailed as a humanitarian hero. You can read more here.

In 1952 Salk give vaccine to his family. In 1955, the vaccine given to the public for free. By 1994, polio was mostly wiped out.

Famed CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent to his vaccine. The scientist replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

A friend of mine remembers contracting polio in 1955, two months after the vaccine was annouced.

“I was 5 and had a terrible headache. We called the local doctor We didn’t have insurance so the doctor kept me at home and he had 2 Blue Cross nurses come over evey day to help my mom help. I could not move so my mom had to boil wool blankets and wrap me in them, then they had to exercise every joint in my body to loosen them. This was every day. Most people were in the hospital in an iron lung. Since we were poor, I was at home. It took about 2 months of constant exercising joints and boiling blankets to keep the joints loose. I was unable to move at all. This was 1955 about 2 months after the vaccination. I have had problems with moving and bones. I spent 2 months at the Shriners Hospital straightening some bones especially in my feet. Still have issues with my back. ” She adds, ” I hope parents will vaccinate their children.”

Most (98-99%) people do vaccinate their kids. However, confidence in vaccines is falling in the US. One thing compounding this problem is the profit motive in medicine. Health care costs have risen faster than incomes in the United States. They slowed after the Affordable Care Act was implimented, sadly misinformation about the act has been widespread. Although the reasons are complex, health insurance is a major factor for our skyrocketing costs. Bottom line: it’s easy to convince people that the health care industry doesn’t care about them, only about money. If you look at health care billionaires, none of them have come up with a cure. It’s no surprise that one reason given for not vaccinating is that doctors and pharmaceutical companies just want to make money. This needs to change. Another problem is the flat funding for public health over the past few years. This needs to change.

The measles outbreak is an example of public misinformation as well as a consequence of government’s failure to adequately fund public health.. As a new election season gears up, look for candidates who put you and your family’s health first and make sure to vote for those who give accurate information. The way things are going, vaccinations could become illegal some day. Can you imagine health care workers thrown in jail for vaccinating people? Don’t let it happen.

Can you spot the E. coli in this contaminated water?

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