In 1952 Dr. Jonas Salk developed the Inactivated Polio Vaccine, leading to eradication of the dreaded disease that had plagued the US for four decades. A polio survivor, Mark Sauer, explained the constant fear of the epidemic: “It was the robber of hope for a generation, several generations of children. There were diseases that were more devastating, affecting more children, more deadly than polio. But polio left kids cripples, and that was an image that this big strong postwar country simply couldn’t abide… the image of a child in an iron lung is about as tearful and wrenching as we could imagine at that time, and any time certainly in this century. There were many other diseases that were bad for America, but polio broke its heart.”
It is no wonder, then, that when Salk developed a safe and effective polio vaccine the country erupted in jubilant celebration. As the United States eradicated the last of the feared childhood diseases, the vaccine ushered in a new era when, wrote historian Jane S. Smith, Americans came to view “health as a birthright.”
From a 21st century perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend the enormous toll infectious diseases exacted on the population. In the 1950’s a doorway opened to miracle vaccines and antibiotics and a brave new world of medical science which seemed to know no limits. So in the sixties, when kids lined up for vaccinations, most would avoid the devastating illnesses that had ravaged the friends and families of their forebears: rabies, typhoid, cholera, plague, measles, pertussis, diphtheria, mumps, rubella, influenza and polio.
Today kids are still lining up for vaccinations – too many, some say. The climate surrounding the science of vaccines is one of suspicion over the morality, ethics, effectiveness and safety of their use. The medical and scientific establishment insists the benefits of preventing suffering and death from infectious diseases outweigh rare adverse effects of immunization. But since vaccination began in the late 18th century, opponents have claimed that vaccines do not work, that they are or may be dangerous, that individuals should rely on personal hygiene instead, or that mandatory vaccinations violate individual rights or religious principles. These arguments have succeeded in reducing vaccination rates in certain communities, leading to increased outbreaks of preventable, and sometimes fatal childhood illnesses.
The controversy over the increasing incidence of autism in this country and its possible link to childhood immunizations is well known. So far, no consensus has been reached and the debate continues. But a new reason to worry about vaccines surfaced last month with the release of two Cochrane Collaboration studies on the benefits of influenza vaccines. The studies support what earlier evidence has shown: there’s no evidence flu shots work effectively, especially in reducing flu-related deaths among the elderly. In addition, researchers said they found no plausible substantiation that flu vaccine prevented death or hospitalization from flu-related complications and only marginally reduced the number of days of lost work attributed to the illness. As the Cochrane Collaboration is an international, non-profit organization whose analyses are widely acknowledged as constituting the highest level of scrutiny of the scientific evidence available, what are we, as consumers, to think when it comes to vaccines?
There are many reasons for the public’s waning confidence in the pharmaceutical industry, like an increasing numbers of drug recalls, injuries linked to prescription drugs, billions of dollars poured into drug advertising and lobbying efforts, higher drug prices in the US than in other countries and the Medicare Part D legislation that benefitted drug manufacturers over consumers. Authors of the Cochrane studies stated that the only ones showing benefit were industry-funded and that the industry-funded studies were more likely to be published in the most prestigious journals, a finding that suggests drug companies knowingly foisted ineffective vaccines on the public for profit. Big money has done much to erode the trust we once had in our drug industry. Drug companies are, after all, corporations whose first obligation is to the shareholders, and to the bottom line. It’s difficult not to yearn for the good-old-days of the 50’s when doctors were our heroes and wonder drugs promised to defeat any and all new medical threats. In light of this latest drug industry scandal, one question arises: will manipulation and exploitation always be the by-products of our for-profit healthcare system?