Using Vaccines Wisely

Using drones to deliver vaccines seems reasonable for places like Vanuatu.

But vaccines won’t help if folks don’t know how to use them correctly, or can’t.

Others avoid vaccines because they believe warnings from dubious sources.

Health, Illness, and Getting a Grip

Being healthy isn’t a mark of holiness. Neither is being sick. What counts is how we deal with what we’ve got. There’s a great deal more to say about that, but not today. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828, 1509, 2211, 22882291, 22922296, 2448)

We’re reasonably sure that folks have been getting polio for millennia. Polio epidemics weren’t a problem until 1907.

I could blame the 1907 outbreak on the American Congress. They passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

I think that was a good idea. But let’s say that I don’t, and have ‘old fashioned values.’ (October 16, 2016)

Applying an earlier century’s all-to-common spin on Christianity, I could claim that food poisoning “is a visitation from God.”

The early, and mid, 20th century had it’s oddball notions too. We’ve got a slightly different set today. They make just as much — or little — sense.

The last time a case of polio started in my country was in 1979.

Polio hasn’t been eradicated yet, so someone could catch the disease before entering the United States. That hasn’t happened since 1993,1 but I think routine vaccinations are still a good idea.

Polio isn’t the only serious disease, of course. But apparently some folks remember that it’s something to avoid. That makes sense. Panic? Not so much.

Researching this post, I learned about what one outfit called the “The Great U.S. Polio Panic of 2015.”

The disease acted like polio, but wasn’t. Several enterovirus D68 cases had been diagnosed, mostly in the Midwest, in 2014. I missed that “panic,” so it may have been limited to folks with specific reading preferences.

Polio in History

When I finally started walking, it was with a limp. I’ve talked about hip dysplasia, doctors, and why I take medical ethics a bit personally, before. (October 7, 2016)

This was the 1950s, so at least one person figured I’d survived a polio infection. It was a reasonable guess at the time.

Folks my age are among the last Americans whose parents might have reasonably feared another polio epidemic.

Polio epidemics started in the 20th century.2 The disease is much older.

Now that we know what to look for, scientists and historians have traced polio back several millennia.

I’ll grant that a retrospective diagnosis on someone who died three millennia back can be debatable. And often is. Debated, that is.

We don’t have photos or oligonucleotide mapping from Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty.

But we do have pictures. I think it’s likely that the priest pictured on that stele had polio, and survived.

We also have Siptah’s mummy, and some records from his time. He’s a pharaoh you may or may not have heard of, who lived during the Nineteenth Dynasty.

Something left him with a severely deformed left foot. A little over 32 centuries later, we’re reasonably sure that he had polio: or something that acted like polio.

The first clinical description of poliomyelitis, polio, was published in 1789. That’s when Michael Underwood described “a debility of the lower extremities.”

The disease had quite a few names in my language during the early 19th century: Dental Paralysis, Infantile Spinal Paralysis, Essential Paralysis of Children, Regressive Paralysis, Myelitis of the Anterior Horns, Tephromyelitis, and Paralysis of the Morning.

Jakob Heine wrote a medical report on Lähmungszustände der unteren Extremitäten in 1840. It’s pretty clear that the “paralysis of the lower extremities” he described was polio.

The disease wasn’t common. Outbreaks were scattered and small. We didn’t have polio epidemics before the 20th century. (August 21, 2016)

Iron Lungs: Not Missing the ‘Good Old Days’

Some folks recovered with no serious aftereffects. Some were crippled.

Some died because paralysis hit systems we use to breathe. By the 1950s, we’d figured out how to keep folks who couldn’t breathe on their own alive with tech like iron lungs.

It was an improvement on the ‘good old days,’ but not by much.

In 1952 the first practical polio vaccine was developed in a lab.

We’d learned, the hard way, that careful testing makes sense. I’ll get back to that.

Nobody died this time around, and the vaccine worked. Mass inoculations started in 1955. An average of about 20,000 folks were catching polio each year by then.

I went through an immunization sequence, and didn’t mind at all when an oral vaccine replaced injections.

Rio, 1904

(From Leonidas Freire, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Brazil’s Old Republic picked its first president the old-fashioned way. Deodoro da Fonseca led a military coup that removed Emperor Pedro II.

Elections started a few revolts later. Women couldn’t vote, and the Política dos Governadores made sure unsuitable candidates didn’t get elected.

It wasn’t all bad news. President Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves apparently thought smallpox inoculations would be a good idea. I think he was right about that.

However, if half of what I’ve read about the program is accurate, it could be a case study in how not to conduct a public immunization program.

The 1904 Rio de Jainero ‘Vaccine Revolt’ was the high, or low, point.

Depending on who you believed, folks like the chap wielding a scalpel in that cartoon were to blame; or the broom-and-hatchet brigade.

My guess is that official attitudes hadn’t changed much since 1891, when the Inspector of Public Health reported that Rio promoted a “complete absence of moral virtue” among its inhabitants, who practiced “horrendous nudity and licentious behavior.”

A much more recent, and academic, publication’s author says that the problem was clashing cultural norms.

Government doctors didn’t see a problem with going into someone’s home and getting up close and personal with the missus and daughters. The folks with a “complete absence of moral virtue” didn’t have the same ‘doctor knows best’ attitude, and did see a problem.3

Rodrigues Alves caught influenza during a pandemic, and died in 1919.

Fears and the 50s

An Anti-Vaccination Society of America leader’s daughter died from sepsis after being exposed to smallpox vaccine.

I’m not unsympathetic, but think working to convince doctors that washing their hands was a good idea would have been a better idea. (October 30, 2016)

The Anti-Vaccination Society of America got started after a visit by William Tebb. He was for social reform, against vaccination, concerned about premature burial, and paid for a drinking fountain in Burstow, England.

The fountain was dedicated to memory of the 400,000 horses killed and wounded during the Boer War. Tebb was also gung-ho about physical purity, food reform, and teetotalism. A colorful chap, in a colorful century. (April 9, 2017; November 11, 2016; July 10, 2016)

America in the 1950s was colorful, too.

Rock and roll was getting popular, a particular brand of Christianity was on the move, and the House Un-American Activities Committee was hunting commies.

I said “colorful,” not praiseworthy.

That 1955 Keep America Committee flyer wasn’t, I think, mainstream.

But a decade later, I was running into folks who took such claims seriously. Some probably still do, with other vaccines on the ‘fear it’ list.

The third item of “the unoly three” was almost certainly a warning against the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act.

Congress said the Act would improve mental health care in Alaska. Land allocated to a mental health trust would generate funds for the programs.

The Keep America Committee’s story was much more interesting.

“…Mental Hygiene is a subtle and diabolical plan of the enemy to transform a free and intelligent people into a cringing horde of zombies….”
(Keep America Committee (May 16, 1955))

Zombies? Maybe they meant that metaphorically.

Other folks seemed equally convinced that the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act was an international conspiracy masterminded by Jews, the Catholic Church, or psychiatrists.

Alaska’s legislature passed a law in 1978 that allowed selling the Alaska Trust land. I’m quite sure they weren’t thwarting an un-American plot.

They said the land would be more useful in the hands of municipalities, and individuals; or as forests, parks or wildlife areas.

Claiming that mutant grizzlies enslaved Alaskan legislators with brainwaves from HAARP is tempting. But someone might believe me. That kind of trouble I don’t need.

A 1982 lawsuit led to a 1985 ruling that selling the land was illegal. A lot of different folks and outfits owned much of the land by then. The snarl got sorted out in 1994.

Some folks were still stirring the anti-Alaska Trust pot in 1992. Maybe that conspiracy theory will be revived, if the Alaska Trust gets into the news again.

I think the best conspiracy claims, in terms of entertainment value, are the ones involving space aliens.

David Icke’s lizard-men are among my favorites. As an example of such things, at any rate. He started warning folks that shape-shifting space-alien lizard-men rule the world in the 1990s.

Reasoned concerns about new medical technology, including vaccines, makes sense. The trick is sorting out facts and fears. (August 21, 2016)

1. UNICEF Drones

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Drones are already being tested for commercial deliveries in many countries”
(BBC News))

Drone vaccine delivery trial for island nation Vanuatu
(June 14, 2017)

Lifesaving vaccines in the island nation of Vanuatu will soon be delivered to remote areas by drone.

“A partnership between the government and the United Nations children’s fund (Unicef) will see a trial on drone medical delivery next year.

“The country is made up of a string of more than 80 islands – once known as the New Hebrides – many of which do not have airstrips or good roads.

“Most of the people live in rural areas and farm their own food.

“Vanuatu’s director general at the ministry of health said the test was a milestone for the small island nation….”

Getting vaccines to folks who need them makes sense. So does letting recipients know what the vaccines are for, and how to use them. Better yet, having someone with a little training on site to answer questions and at least supervise inoculations.

I’m pretty sure folks at UNICEF have thought of that.

This looks like a good idea. Part of a good idea, at least.4

These ‘drones’ are unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft that fly without anyone aboard. Some are updated versions of model airships used in 19th century music hall acts and radio-controlled model airplanes flying at least since my younger days.

The last I heard, fully-autonomous drones are still in the research and development stage.

‘Good Enough for a Story’

Given the human capacity for silliness, I’m pretty sure that someone’s going to have unreasonable fears of what UNICEF is ‘really’ up to.

The fears would make sense, in a ‘good enough for a story’ way.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, is part of the United Nations Development Group. For some, the UN connection alone would be enough for heebie-jeebies.

Add news like The Register’sflying robot killer death machines” article, and stand back. The new world order conspiracy theory could rise from its unquiet bed and — here we go again.

I think UNICEF, and the United Nations, aren’t perfect. But at the moment they are part of what we work with. If we’re doing our job. (June 18, 2017; May 28, 2017; May 21, 2017)

2. Measles: Avoidable Deaths

(From SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Measles ‘tragedy’ kills 35 across Europe
James Gallagher, BBC News (July 11, 2017)

Thirty-five people have died in the past year from measles outbreaks across Europe, the World Health Organization has warned.

“It described the deaths – which can be prevented with vaccination – as an ‘unacceptable tragedy’.

“A six-year-old boy in Italy was the latest to die from the infection. More than 3,300 measles cases have been recorded in the country.

“The most fatalities – 31 – have been in Romania.

“But there have also been deaths in Germany and Portugal since June 2016….”

Measles isn’t as scary as the Black Death. It’s also a fairly new disease. Scientists figure it evolved from the rinderpest virus, about a thousand years back.5

Rinderpest was an often-fatal disease for cattle, so dealing with that virus was a priority. It’s now one of two diseases we’ve managed to eradicate.

Most folks who catch measles recover, if they can rest and don’t develop any of several occasionally-fatal complications. But since a few folks will die after getting measles, we’ve developed MMR vaccine.

The notion that MMR vaccine causes people like me6 comes partly from a fake 1998 article in The Lancet.

Result? A remarkable number of folks are scared of keeping their kids healthy. Not that they’d put it that way.

Bogus “scientific” research ranges from honest but stupid mistakes, through professional fraud, to crackpots and ethically-challenged journalists. Whatever the cause, it’s a bad idea. (April 28, 2017; December 16, 2016; August 26, 2016)

What’s sad is that the MMR vaccine works, and should be available anywhere in Europe. Those folks didn’t have to die.

3. Congo Polio Outbreak

(From AFP, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Polio can only be prevented through immunisation”
(BBC News))

DR Congo polio outbreak ‘from poor vaccine coverage’
(June 14, 2017)

Two outbreaks of polio have been identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a blow to the goal of wiping out the disease from the world.

“The World Health Organization said there was a high risk the vaccine-derived virus could spread.

The strain of polio involved comes from areas with poor vaccine coverage.

A similar outbreak, linked to low immunisation rates, was confirmed last week in Syria….”

Karl Landsteiner and Erwin Popper isolated the poliovirus in 1909. Since then we’ve learned that it’s an RNA virus, a bit of RNA in a protein shell.

Some RNA viruses, like the ones causing the common cold, are more of a nuisance than a threat. Others, like poliovirus and the measles virus, are occasionally lethal.

A little over a century after Landseiner and Popper’s work, we have comparatively safe and effective vaccines that can protect folks from the disease.

But like any other technology, the vaccines won’t work unless they’re used properly.

Some vaccines, including those used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, use viruses that are weakened, but not dead. Inactivated vaccines, where the viruses are dead, are not necessarily safer.

Fear and Marketing

An emotionally-convincing tale could still be spun about the evils of vaccine, based on experiments done in the mid 1930s.

Decades after two disastrous experiments, McCarthyism enthusiasts included “polio monkey serums” in their “sign of the unholy three” marketing flier.

Their “polio monkey serums” probably depended on memories of Dr. Maurice Brodie’s and Dr. Dr. John A. Kolmer’s experiments for emotional impact.

New York University’s Dr. Brodie had tried a dead-virus vaccine on himself and several thousand children.

They didn’t die, but many developed severe allergic reactions to the vaccine. They didn’t have immunity to polio, either.

Dr. Brodie’s career was essentially over. He died a few years later, in his late 30s. I don’t know why, although rumors of suicide are plausible.7

Dr. John Kolmer tested a weakened-virus vaccine on several thousand children, the same year as Brodie’s experiment. With sketchy preparation and without a control group. They didn’t acquire immunity. Several caught polio. Several died.8

Happily, other researchers kept working. I talked about that earlier.

Medical research is a good idea, if it doesn’t expose folks “to disproportionate or avoidable risks.” (Catechism, 22922295)

We’ve learned a great deal since 1935. My guess, and hope, is that Dr. Brodie thought his vaccine was safe for human testing. Using himself as a test subject certainly suggests that. The results were still tragic.

Vaccines used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, weren’t experimental. The problems in that case were — complicated.

Disease: One of Many Problems

(From Julien Harneis, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Folks in that photo, taken on the Congo River in 2008, were refugees. They were living on abandoned barges. The barges had once hauled agricultural and industrial products.

Polio outbreaks are just one of the problems folks in the DRC face.

Folks have lived there for — a very long time: 90,000 years, at least. My guess is that it’s a whole lot longer. ‘It happened earlier’ seems like a common theme in our growing knowledge of Earth’s past, and ours. (June 16, 2017)

Folks living in the Congo basin should be prospering. Their land has abundant mineral resources, good farmland, a nice climate, and the Congo River. The Congo is one of Earth’s major rivers.

I think, and hope, the Congo will eventually be as filled with commerce as my continent’s Mississippi.

That is in a hoped-for future.

Today, the territory is a mess.

The 2016 Human Development Index ranked the DRC’s level of human development at 176 out of 187.9 There are worse places to live, but not many.

Appalling ‘Philanthropy’

“Congo” is the name European sailors used for the river. It was the Kingdom of Kongo and Kongo people’s major river.

“Congo” was arguably easier for Europeans to pronounce than the regional name, Nzadi O Nzere, River Swallowing Rivers.

“Mississippi” is what happened when Frenchmen tried saying Mshi-ziibi, “Big River.” And that’s another topic.

I won’t blame all of the Congo basin’s problems on Belgium. But Leopold II’s rapacious rule was a bad idea, and conditions haven’t been much better since.

From roughly 1390 to 1891, Kingdom of Kongo was a semi-independent nation, a sort of junior partner of Belgium.

Non-European slavers like Tippu Tip didn’t make life easier for folks living there. Neither did Portuguese merchants who were major clients of the slavers.

On top of that, the kingdom’s internal politics seem to have been rather intense.

In 1885 Belgium’s King King Leopold II told other European leaders that he’d be doing humanitarian and philanthropic work in Kingdom of Kongo. They apparently believed him, so until 1908, Leopold’s “Congo Free State” was the king’s personal property.

His notion of ‘uplifting’ folks living there was to relieve them of all the ivory, rubber, and minerals he could ship out. Even by the period’s standards, his conduct was appalling.

International pressure convinced Belgian’s government to rename Leopold’s Congo Free State as the Belgian Congo.

That lasted from 1908 to 1960. It wasn’t quite more of the same.

The territory has been independent since then, endured a succession of dubiously-ethical leaders, and has been renamed a few times. It is currently not the worst place on Earth to live. By a narrow margin.

Why Pay Attention?

Africa is a long way from Minnesota.

Why should I pay attention to what’s happening there?

I’m interested in the science involved in sorting out the polio outbreak.

And I must not pretend that my neighbors are limited to folks I know personally. (Matthew 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; Matthew 5:4344; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2530; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1825)

I think the World Health Organization’s polio eradication efforts are a good idea. We’ve got a pretty good chance of succeeding, too.

Not “soon” by American standards, maybe. But we’re down to a few dozen known cases a year. My guess is that we’re no more than a few decades from putting polio on the “eradicated” list, along with smallpox and rinderpest. Or could be, if we keep working.

This would be a good thing. (October 16, 2016; August 21, 2016)

Finishing the Job

I don’t have a problem with polio vaccine, partly because I’ve long since gone through the process. So have many other folks.

I also looked into how a vaccine-derived poliovirus happens.

Vaccines with weakened live viruses are safe and effective. That’s true only if enough folks in an area get immunized. Having creature comforts like water and sewage treatment tech helps.

Folks living in many, most, parts of the DRC don’t. Many didn’t get immunized.

Inadequate sewage treatment isn’t a problem by itself. Not where poliovirus is concerned. It’s still a good idea, for other reasons.

Where was I? polio, vaccines, sewage treatment. Right.

If everyone in an area is immunized, it won’t matter that kids get exposed to the attenuated poliovirus. The viruses will die if they don’t promptly reinfect another person. End of problem.

Even if an unimmunized kid gets infected with the weakened vaccine virus, the results are the same as if he or she took the vaccine normally.

The weakened virus will trigger an immune response, the kid acquires immunity, and the viruses die. When everyone’s immune, all viruses are dead. End of problem again.

However — viruses, including the one that causes polio, mutate and evolve rapidly.

With enough unimmunized folks around, a vaccine-derived virus strain will keep moving from host to host. There’s a chance that it’ll change into a fully active virus. Then we have a polio outbreak. Big problem.

Getting polio vaccines to folks is a good idea. So is making sure that enough folks get immunized. This is a job that, once started, should be finished.

I put links to a range of technical and non-technical resources below. I strongly recommend the Rotary’s “Understanding the recent polio outbreaks.”10

Dealing With Disease

I talked about medical history’s highlights recently, from the Ebers Papyrus and Hippocrates of Kos to Saint Hildegard of Bingen. (May 12, 2017)

St. Hildegard’s “Physica” and “Causae et Curae” helped lay foundations for the branch of philosophy we call science.

Nearly a millennium after St. Hildegard’s work, we’ve learned quite a bit. We’ve also acquired some very odd notions.

Some, not all, Christians act as if using the brains God gave us is sinful.

Some, again not all, scientists act as if they think a core value of Christianity is avoiding knowledge. Considering the antics of some Christians, I can understand their attitude: but don’t agree.

Some scientists, like Gregor Mendel, have been unequivocally Christian and Catholic.

Mendel’s experiments with peas and mice were much later recognized as groundbreaking genetics research. He was also an Augustinian friar and abbot, so his religious beliefs are fairly obvious.

Others, like Louis Pasteur, weren’t quite as blatantly Catholic.

In Pasteur’s case, I think some assumptions about his beliefs may come from his refusal to mix religion and science. Mendel didn’t either; but like I said, he was an Augustinian friar and abbot.

My culture’s recent history might make imagining someone rejecting either faith or science easy enough. Attempting a ‘scientific’ faith or ‘Biblical’ science is another option. But not, I think, a good option.

Trusting God, Within Reason

America’s ‘Bible thumper’ subculture was developing ‘creation science’ during my youth. Small wonder so many Americans assume that religion and reality don’t mix. (March 31, 2017)

My experience suggests that thumpers started losing their penchant for ersatz Elizabethan English around the time ‘creation science’ hatched.

Their ‘faith-based science’ details were new, but the basic ideas remind me of Hawkins’ imaginative effort to wrap new facts around his preferred reality:

“…Such is the Basis of Scripture, and such also is the legitimate deduction of History. But incontinent Liberality deceiving Faith, Reason, empty with the fumes of that same flattery by which we originally fell, cometh of the unhallowed embrace, and finding in the crust of the Earth certain animal Types….”
(“The Book of the Great Sea-Dragons, Ichthyosauri and Plesiosauri,” Thomas Hawkins, Thomas; p. 1 (1840))

Embarrassing as ‘creation science’ is, I don’t see it as a physically dangerous belief. Faith healing’s far end is another matter. It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard of someone dying because their religion was against medical treatment, so maybe it’s on the wane.

Getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Within reason. So is prayer. And science. (Catechism, 15061510, 2288, 2289, 2292)

The idea that God has anger management issues, and smites folks with disease? I suspect that was more common in the 18th century than now.

“for a man to infect a family in the morning with smallpox and to pray to God in the evening against the disease is blasphemy; that the smallpox is a judgment of God on the sins of people, and that to avert it is but to provoke him more; that inoculation is an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah, whose right it is to wound and smite.
(Contemporary reaction to inoculation experiments by American physician Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, circa 1720)

“Smallpox is a visitation from God; but the cowpox is produced by presumptuous man; the former was what Heaven ordained, the latter is, perhaps, a daring violation our of holy religion.”
(A physician’s reaction to Dr. Edward Jenner’s experiments in developing a vaccine for smallpox, (1796) via Psychological Sciences, Vanderbilt University)

Repeating what I’ve said before, and probably will again, I take my faith seriously.

Reading the Bible, frequently, is important. So is trusting God, and God’s truth. (Catechism, 101133, 215217)

Faith means willingly and consciously embracing “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

“The whole truth” means just that: all truth. Not just the bits and pieces I like, or what we learned before some arbitrary date.

Since God created everything, including this universe, science and religion should get along fine. The same goes for faith and reason. (Genesis 1:1; “Fides et Ratio;” “Gaudium et Spes,” 36; Catechism, 159)

Living in Yesterday’s Tomorrow

The RCA Whirlpool “Miracle Kitchen” went on tour, starting in about 1956. It included a microwave oven: one of the more accurate ‘world of the future’ predictions.

Quite a few folks were talking about ‘miracles’ then, the futuristic kind.

“…’Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years’ pretty much summed up the attitude of the day. We weren’t just going to see advances or novelties; we were going to see miracles….”
(“Life in 2000 AD,” Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy)

I can get nostalgic about the era’s silly ‘world of tomorrow’ enthusiasm.

I don’t think it made any more sense than today’s equally-silly pessimism. But imagining a future “where jetpacks were as common as galoshes,” as David S. Zondy put it, was fun.

Now that I’m living in ‘the future,’ it’s not as shiny as some folks expected. I like it, on the whole, and that’s yet another topic. (June 23, 2017; October 30, 2016)

The “Miracles You’ll See…” article in a 1950 Popular Mechanics magazine was, I think, overly-optimistic.

But folks who were my current age at the time, born in 1885, had reason to be enthusiastic about the next half-century. Particularly if they were like me, and remembered what living in ‘simpler times’ was really like.

Cholera and Miasma

The first cholera pandemic ran from 1817 to 1824. We don’t know how many died.

The second cholera pandemic, from 1829 to 1849, was probably just as bad.

Cholera went international again in 1852. That pandemic ran until 1860. The fourth cholera pandemic lasted from 1863 to 1875.

Details of the fifth cholera pandemic are debatable. Debated, anyway. What’s more certain is that it lasted from 1881 to 1896, and killed a lot of folks. Again, we don’t know exactly how many.

The sixth and seventh cholera pandemics, 1899-1923 and 1961-75, were more of the same. We haven’t had another one since. Outbreaks and epidemics, yes. Pandemic, no. That’s progress. Stopping cholera is also part of a job we haven’t finished yet.

I’m not surprised that we don’t have exact numbers for how many folks died in those global disasters. Survivors of an epidemic or pandemic understandably focus more on burying bodies and rebuilding their society, less on compiling records.

Another priority would be healing folks who are still sick. Or, better yet, keeping folks from getting sick in the first place.

Folks from Europe to China had noticed that disease was more likely near fetid swamps and other smelly places. Common-sense prevention, like not touching sick people, wouldn’t keep you healthy.

The most obvious common factor was contact with foul-smelling air.

Vitruvius, a 1st century Roman architect, noticed a connection between the “heavy, unhealthy vapors” of the Pontine Marshes and illness. (“De architectura,” Book I)

Miasma theory was the consensus scientific explanation for disease until about 130 years back. Other theories. like contingent contagionism, had been suggested. The contagionism-miasma debate was big among doctors in the 19th century.

The idea that disease was spread by tiny “seeds” was over two thousand years old, but ‘bad air’ seemed a more reasonable explanation. That, we could smell. And correlations between ‘night air’ and disease were well-documented. Causation seemed plausible.

Certainly more plausible than the idea that tiny little critters we can’t see are bad for us. That idea took a long time to catch on.

‘Magic Bullets’

Agostino Bassi found a tiny fungus that made silkworms sick. In 1844, he said that maybe tiny organisms caused diseases in humans, too.

John Snow traced the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak to a specific well. Meanwhile, scientists in Italy ignored Filippo Pacini’s isolation of Vibrio cholerae, the cholera bacillus. Miasma theory was really popular.

Eventually, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch produced evidence that couldn’t be ignored. My guess is that today’s germ theory of disease isn’t the whole story.

I keep saying this: we have a great deal left to learn.

Paul Ehrlich’s 1900 Zauberkugel, magic bullet, isn’t “magic.”

It’s his name for a then-hypothetical agent that could be ‘aimed’ at disease organisms. I think naming something makes thinking about it easier.

In this case, it arguably helped Ehrlich study human immune systems and develop Salvarsan, the first effective treatment for syphilis.

That was in 1910. And this Paul Ehrlich is the physician-scientist, not the famous biologist-author.

We’d used antibiotics for millennia, along with other ‘folk medicine’ cures.

What made some ‘medical miracles’ of the 20th and 21st centuries, including eradication of smallpox and rinderpest, possible was learning how some folk remedies worked.

It’s not ‘magic,’ and antibiotics aren’t ‘miracles.’ All they did was make it possible, after millennia of suffering and death, to finally cure — and prevent — many diseases.

Folks living in the 1950s had reasons for their enthusiasm and optimism.

They had problems, too; some of them very serious. So do we. But we have cause for enthusiasm and optimism, too. Reasonable optimism:

1 Polio; nearly gone, but shouldn’t be forgotten:

2 Polio history:

3 Rio de Janeiro, 1904:

4 Delivery drones and all that:

5 Measles background:

6 Autism spectrum disorder and me:

7 Dr. Brodie, polio and suicide:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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6 Responses to Using Vaccines Wisely

  1. Pingback: Using Vaccines Wisely

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Missing image for the caption: “(From Anti-Vaccination Society of America, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)”

    Missing article: “What’s sad is that MMR vaccine works”

    Missing article or plural? “Getting polio vaccine to folks is a good idea.”

    Missing letter: “Some, again not all, scienists act as if”

    Extra letter: “Follks living in the 1950s had reasons for their enthusiasm and optimism.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

    • Thanks, and fixed. About the image display: it’s an intermittent issue with some images in that one directory. I’ve run into it before, but not often.

      Since you reminded me – and let me know that it’s not just my connection – I have either resolved the issue by moving the images to another directory, and updating links – – – or really messed up the system. Since they seem to display correctly, it’s probably fixed. I hope. 🙂 Thanks again.

  3. I like the drone idea. Some time ago, I came across an article that my students should’ve been reading regarding this issue of vaccines. A kid created a machine called a Vaxxwagon to safely transport vaccines across India. Sometimes the vaccines would get too hot and become destroyed, so he created a transportation device to keep them cool. Here is a similar article regarding the topic:

    When I attended university, I became deeply passionate about colonization/imperialism and the neo movement of both in Africa. The part about Belgium’s king you mentioned always struck me as horrific. A lot of the countries in African, including my dad’s native home Ghana, were under centuries and decades of oppression from European forces. Many countries today still manage to perform covert mineral/resource robbing. Not to mention large amounts of pollution and e-waste piling up from the West. Also, the contraception movement is flooding Africa making them susceptible to Western social practices. Plus these same countries are trying to advance same-sex marriage. Thankfully, many Africans will flat out tell you that neither one of those things is on a normal day to day agenda. Many traditionalists or “conservatives” recognize how dangerous these practices are.

    Thank goodness Jonas Salk created an effective polio vaccine. You mentioned something regarding the Food and Drug Act of the early 20th Cen. Another factor that contributed to its creation was Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle. A horrific book by the way! Growing up as a teenager, I was obsessed with this book. How he uncovered the horrors of the meatpacking industry and gave a voice to immigrant labor rights was a great display of journalism.

    I’m curious, what do you think about the debate regarding parents opting out of mandatory state vaccinations? I’m sure it’s old, but it seems to pick up steam annually.

    I know here in Texas, it’s required by law ( I believe) for school enrollment and students have to get them periodically. Some parents have sincere religious objections. Overall, I think vaccinations are a good idea for public health. As your article said, we should use them wisely. However, I do see the government’s influence as being a little too far. Granted, adequate research should be done so parents can make a well-informed decision for their child’s health. The State’s involvement seems too powerful and coercive-“Do this or your child won’t get an education.” Moreover, it comes off as the gov. knows best for the family. There have been many small recurrences of illnesses due to anti-vaccinations happening in the country.

    • About vaccinations, government policies and all that – – – my opinion is that it’s complicated. At least in the details.

      The *principles* should be simple, for folks who take Jesus seriously. It’s the old ‘love your neighbor, everyone’s your neighbor’ thing. Simple, but not easy.

      Parents making well-informed decisions for their children’s good, in matters of education and health, for example, makes sense to me.

      So does everyone making well-informed decisions for the common good.

      Although “well-informed” and “politics” can, in principle, go together: quite often they don’t. It’s not just ‘those people.’ Not in my experience. I’ve run into too many irrational conservatives, unthinking liberals, and wildly emotional zealots for many positions.

      The good news, I think, is that some folks of most persuasions do occasionally decide to think before deciding. And also occasionally take the time and trouble to find facts. That’s not easy. I’ve caught myself letting emotions take control far more often than I like.

      Getting back to parents, governments and making sense.


      A problem with saying that we should act for the common good is that “common good” has apparently become a political slogan for at least some Americans.

      I haven’t run into a formal definition of its use in that context.

      I gather that some see it as the imperative to force their ideas of what others should do on those who don’t already agree.

      Others, reasonably or not, see it as an excuse for those with power and influence to force those lower on the social ladder to do what their ‘betters’ want them to.

      I don’t think either side of that issue is particularly well-informed, but I’m a Catholic – – – so I’m pretty sure that America’s traditional upper crust or common folk would *not* think my view was valid. That’s yet another reason I’m not heartbroken over some of our traditions fading. 😉

      Catechism 1905 and following talks about the common good, from a Catholic perspective. (“By common good is to be understood ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.’…” (1906))

      Catechism 2211 ( ) starts with “The political community has a duty to honor the family, to assist it, and to ensure especially…” and includes “…the protection of security and health….”


      I am convinced that vaccinations are a long-proven medical procedure which can prevent or control many diseases. I also think that helping prevent forks getting sick and occasionally dying from diseases is a good idea.

      Given those views, I see part of a parent’s job to be making sure their children are vaccinated against diseases – particularly those which have in the past killed folks in wholesale lots. I also see part of a parent’s job to be providing the kids with food and shelter. That doesn’t seem to be controversial: happily.


      I hope that many or most parents who ‘protect’ their kids from vaccinations mean well.

      Those who fear that vaccinations will physically harm their kids are not, I think, well-informed. Or perhaps do not understand statistics well enough to appreciate benefit/risk ratios.

      Those who have religious scruples against vaccinations – perhaps fearing that God will smite those who try to prevent the Almighty’s smiting them with disease – probably also mean well. I don’t see God as having that sort of anger control issue, but again: I’m Catholic. And that’s another topic.


      I sympathize with those who do not like ‘the government’ forcing citizens to act against their will. I’m no great fan of any side’s control-freak faction.

      The situation in Texas is, I think, complicated by the state’s history and regional culture. I don’t know enough about those sides of the issue to have an informed opinion – – – beyond recognizing that heavy-handed efforts to establish and maintain top-down control are not likely to be popular.

      I feel that America would be better off if our state and national governments would stop trying so hard to ‘protect’ us from whatever the powers that be fear at the moment. I’m not sure where the lines between reasonable standards and obsessive micromanagement are, so can’t reasonably expect general agreement on where they should be. Or what they divide, for that matter.

      Where vaccinations are concerned? I think that in a society where such things are available and affordable, parents should be upset if a government tried to *stop* them from having their kids vaccinated. Unless there is evidence that the individual may have a bad reaction to the injection, the benefits of increased immunity to disease seem obvious.

      Individuals benefit by suffering less discomfort – and avoiding disability or death, sometimes. Others benefit by not getting exposed to diseases carried by their neighbors. It’s a happily win-win situation.

      Considering my personal and family history with medical mismanagement and malfeasance, that opinion is a trifle remarkable. And that’s yet another topic.

Thanks for taking time to comment!