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When I was a child, polio was a scourge that was many mothers’ (and fathers’, and siblings’, and society's) worst nightmare. It struck with devastating effects, stalking children with the risk of irreparable harm. And then, there was a vaccine, and it was a godsend. But it wasn't just that, it was also a "science-send."
I am thinking back to those days now, a time when I was just starting to climb the mountain of life. Now well into the back side of that mountain, another even-deadlier disease sweeps over the globe. And I, my wife Jean, and many of our family and friends, are at an age when it is particularly fatal. Once again, science is riding to the rescue in the form of a vaccine.
Maybe it is my age and experience, but I have never understood those who disparage vaccines. I've reported on the so-called “anti-vaccine movement” (anti-common sense or intelligence movement) since my days at CBS, in particular a special report on 60 Minutes. We got a lot of blowback. But as someone who has lived through the rise of modern vaccines, I stand firm and unwavering. And so should anyone who cares about our health and our common humanity. Vaccines are societal medicine. Yes they protect individuals, but in their aggregate, "the herd," they can protect communities and the world.
In our book "What Unites Us" I wrote about the eradication of smallpox:
The goal was to eradicate the deadliest killer known to man: smallpox. Like our voyages to the moon, this unprecedented public health mission was grounded in the audacious belief that our government could do something seemingly impossible, something that would change the course of human history.
In the twentieth century alone, an estimated three hundred million people had died of the disease, and we were determined to eliminate it entirely. The United States had been declared free of smallpox in 1949 after a major vaccination campaign. But the disease lingered, mostly in places we called the Third World at the time. The hope was that with proper determination and strategic deployments of public health workers, the entire world could be freed of a scourge that had been killing people by the millions since at least the time of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt. But there were many skeptics.
The effort was led by an unassuming epidemiologist from Ohio, D. A. Henderson (born just 150 or so miles away from a fellow Buckeye, Neil Armstrong). He had led a U.S.-sponsored vaccination program in West and Central Africa to great success. And many at the World Health Organization (WHO) took notice. There was a vote to see whether they should launch a global campaign, and the organization decided to do so by the slimmest of margins. The head of the WHO was livid, worried that the mission would be doomed to failure, much as what had happened with an earlier effort to eradicate malaria. So Dr. Henderson persuaded the United States to lead the effort to make sure his nation would feel responsible for success.
After a global campaign comprised of countless doctors, nurses, public health workers, and volunteers, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980. It remains the only disease to have been fully defeated in the history of the planet.
The eradication of smallpox has been called the greatest medical event in human history. But the science behind it was relatively simple and well known. There had actually been a form of a smallpox vaccine since the eighteenth century; what was required was the ability to dream big, to work with others, and to see the destiny of the United States as improving the lives of those beyond our borders. This is the America of which I am exceptionally proud.
When news broke of a COVID-19 vaccine, in truths multiple vaccines, I couldn't wait to get one. I also know my privilege and felt compelled not to try to jump ahead in any line. I just wanted to know what line to get into. The rollout has been bumpy, as has been well documented. But we seem to be hitting a stride as a nation, and many individual states. I am happy to report that Jean and I both got our second shot the day before Valentine’s Day. It was the best gift I could ask for.
One important thing to note, is these vaccines are being branded by the companies that made them —Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, etc. It makes sense for product shorthand and marketing, but none of this would have been possible without the scientists working in basic research over decades. Their curiosity-driven research about how life works at its most foundational levels was devoid of accolades, generous compensation, or in some instances even job security. But their perseverance led to revolutionary new insights and vaccine technologies the world had never known. And now their work is saving the world.
It may sound a bit corny, but if you have read this far, indulge me. Stop for a moment. Think of the countless hours spent in labs by brilliant minds, and say (if you're inclined out loud even), "Yay, Science!"
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