Civic Pride in the Time of Covid

Civic Pride in the Time of Covid

During the Cold War, the greatest fear in America was the bomb.

In a close second place was polio.

Everyone was at risk, children especially, but also teenagers and adults. Polio returned every year, usually during the summer. There was no prevention and no cure. 

People got sick, some got very sick. Many lost the use of their legs, their arms, or both. Many lost the ability to breathe, and some lost their lives. 

Americans were terrified.

But on an unremarkable Tuesday in April 1955, everything changed.

Church bells rang and factory whistles blew. Across America, people ran into the streets weeping.

In all caps, newspaper headlines shouted: “THE VACCINE WORKS.”

After two years of trials, it was certain: Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine worked.

In the next few days and weeks, store front windows were shoe-polished with “Thank you, Dr. Salk.” Local parades featured floats celebrating the defeat of polio. President Eisenhour choked up when he met Dr. Salk at the White House. 

For decades, Americans saw polio as a shared tragedy. In the wake of the Depression when philanthropist money dried up, ordinary people mailed in dimes to fight polio. Literally tons of dimes. 

It was the March of Dimes that funded Salk’s research. 

Volunteers organized an unprecedented two million American children in the largest vaccine trial ever completed. Smiling kids posed for photos wearing “Polio Pioneer” buttons.

No wonder Americans were proud. 

They saw themselves as part of a group. Americans cared not only for their own children, but for America’s children. They were a public that cared about public health. 

Americans have Covid fatigue. We are tired, just tired of it. We are appalled by the record deaths and the packed ICUs and the exhausted medical staffs and the damaged economy and the never-ending social distancing.

But then, hope. 

It began with front-line medical staff smiling through their masks, giving weary thumbs-up in vaccine selfies on social media. Then more medical staff. More selfies. 

And we loved it. We cheered and hit “like” and a lot of us teared up with every posting. 

March 2020 seems like a million years ago. We now have two vaccines that are 95% effective, and we can’t get them into arms fast enough.

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a mega drive through at Texas Motor Speedway.  Drones and helicopters flew overhead, and the media was about with mics and cameras.  

Volunteers and paramedics and medical staff were there by the hundreds, waving and smiling and chatting, and all the while maintaining efficiency like you just can’t believe. 

People were rolling down their windows and waving and thanking the staff and the volunteers.

I witnessed the same scene at a mega center in Dallas where my 82-year-old mother-in-law received her first jab. Big smiles everywhere. Organization, volunteers, hopefulness, thankfulness, celebration. 

As more and more of us are called in for our jabs, social media selfies have not abated. It’s our twenty-first century version of church bells ringing and factory whistles blowing.

Vaccine rollout has not been problem-free, nor was the celebrated polio vaccine rollout. Some vaccination sites run with the efficiency of a Chick-fil-A drive-through, while other sites struggle.

But we are hopeful. And our civic pride is showing.

We cheer, we take selfies, we heart the photos. We delight in the stories: the medical team, stalled on a highway in a blizzard with a soon to expire supply of vaccine, going car to car, vaccinating every willing arm; the hospital in California rushing against time to vaccinate their community after a freezer failure; the health care workers made honorary Super Bowl captains.

I am vaccinated for myself, sure, but it is so much more: 

I am vaccinated because I want to protect my neighbors living in crowded conditions, my neighbors for whom “working from home” is not an option, my newborn neighbors, my immunocompromised neighbors, my elderly neighbors, and my teacher neighbors.

I am vaccinated because I want to be a responsible member of the herd. It’s how I love my neighbor as myself.

Let the church bells ring. 

“Polio Pioneer”

It’s not a Polio Pioneer button, but I love my pin!

Staff and volunteers at Texas Motor Speedway.

RNA saves the day!

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

night after night they reveal knowledge.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

It was a typical birthday party for a ten-year-old boy – balloons, cake, rambunctious kids. Oh, and party favors, too! 

But this was not your usual grab bag of gum and cheap toys. 

The loot bags also contained a British five-pound note, worth about $10.00 at the time. There was one small catch…

In order to get the party-prize, each little guest had to let the birthday boy’s dad draw a blood sample. 

Later, Dad laughingly recounted the hilariousness of the situation: “I lined them up and they stuck out their arms. Kids were fainting. One kid threw up all over his mother. It was just your standard 10-year-old’s birthday.”

And you thought bounce houses got out of control.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield used the blood samples he collected at his son’s birthday party in one of the most notorious medical studies in modern times. Wakefield’s study, published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet, triggered a decades-long collapse of public confidence in one of the most significant medical advances in human history: vaccination. 

In his 1998 article, Wakefield claimed that in eight children, the onset of autism followed immunization with the MMR vaccine. Researchers all over the world tried to replicate his results, but no one could.

Still, vaccination rates plummeted in the UK and in the United States. 

The thing is . . . Wakefield made it all up.

The birthday party was just the beginning. In addition to an uncontrolled study with sketchy “volunteer” recruitment, he fabricated data. Before the Lancet article was published, Wakefield filed a patent for his own version of the MMR. Wakefield was also being paid for his “expert” testimony in a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.

Twelve years after publication, the Lancet retracted the article and Wakefield lost his medical license. Decades of world-wide research and tens of thousands of cases demonstrate no link between autism and vaccination.

Unrepentant, Wakefield continues to travel and speak to anti-vaccine groups. Despite the loss of a “measles-free” status in the UK and multiple measles outbreaks in the United States, groups continue to pay Wakefield thousands of dollars for his “expertise”. To celebrities and everyday moms and dads who do not want to “poison” their children, Wakefield is a martyr. 

Unfortunately, the science behind vaccine safety is lost on those with an anti-vaccination mindset. Research shows that exposure to science evidence reenforces anti-vaccination perceptions of parents. Emotions trump evidence.

Welcome to 2020, and welcome to the flip side of the anti-vaccination coin. 

As the world awaits the release of one of several Covid-19 vaccines now in phase-3 trials, opposition to the vaccine is rising, and from a very surprising precinct. Anti-Covid-19 vaccine voices are getting louder, and one in particular caught the attention of NIH director Francis Collins. 

Michael Zimmerman is a biologist and the founder of the Clergy Letter Project, an effort demonstrating that religion and science are not in conflict. Zimmerman begins his essay by citing his Ph.D. in biology, his opposition to the pseudo-science of vaccine denial, and his generalized rejection of conspiracy theories.

Yet, Zimmerman declares his opposition to a Covid-19 vaccine – at least for the next three months.

Zimmerman and other newly-minted antivaxxers do not trust the current administration. Zimmerman fears the anti-science dogma touted by the Trump administration. Zimmerman and others fear political pressure on the CDC and the FDA will result in the release of a risky vaccine. 

Collins, in his public response to Zimmerman, is direct and uncharacteristically blunt. 

Shouldn’t you reserve judgement until you see the data? Collins asks. 

The vaccine approval process is transparent and is overseen by respected life-long scientists like Collins and Anthony Fauci. And unlike “America’s Frontline Doctors’” claims in their fifteen minutes of summer fame, legitimate science studies are transparent and published for critical review.

In response to Collins’ hope for a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2020, Zimmerman writes this: 

“I hope your prediction is off by a month and that approval doesn’t occur until after 20 January 2021 with a new administration in place.”

To which Collins replied:

“Be careful that you don’t end up hoping and praying for the vaccine to arrive after January 20 — when an earlier scientifically rigorous result would have potentially saved many lives.”

To those who are usually on Team Science but find themselves rooting against a Covid-19 vaccine: trust the process. If you don’t trust Trump, fine. Trust Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, two scientists with decades of stellar public health service and a history of withstanding political pressure from both parties. 

Recently, Fauci publicly took the CDC to task for an announcement made while he was under general anesthesia. Fauci lost no time in setting the record straight with his disapproval. And last week, Fauci scolded Senator Rand Paul in a congressional hearing for his repeated misrepresentations of Covid-19 evidence. 

Traditional anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 anti-vaxxers are two sides of the same coin. At their core, both groups mistrust science. Both groups are influenced by deeply held, emotional beliefs. 

Both traditional anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 anti-vaxxers threaten public health and the goal of herd immunity.

On September 25, 2020, Francis Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize for a lifetime of demonstrating harmony between modern science and faith. In his acceptance speech, Collins encourages us to return to our calling to love one another – both friends and enemies.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves means loving all our neighbors: our immunocompromised neighbors, our elderly neighbors, our newborn neighbors, our medically fragile neighbors, our neighbors undergoing chemotherapy. 

If you are medically able to be vaccinated, you are practicing love in a very real, very practical way. 

(Read the correspondence between Francis Collins and Michael Zimmerman here

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I

(Hillsong United “So Will I“)

string theory

What We Don’t Know (Or Don’t Remember) Can Hurt Us

The virus belongs to a class of pathogens called “teratogens” – literally: “monster makers”.

Yet, for decades, it flew under the radar. In children and adults, infection was mild: a bit of fever, an unimpressive rash. After a few days, the sick bounced back with no harm done.

Rubella was considered the mildest of childhood diseases. In a time of polio, rubella was ignored.

But an astute Australian ophthalmologist picked up on a disturbing pattern: nine months after a 1939 rubella epidemic, sixty-eight out of seventy-eight babies born blind were born to mothers infected with rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy. Over the next twenty years, research confirmed his findings.

Americans experienced the horrors of rubella in a massive outbreak between 1963 and 1964. Six thousand babies spontaneously aborted, two thousand babies died at birth.

Twenty thousand babies were born with damaged livers, pancreases, and brains. The babies suffered hepatitis, diabetes, mental retardation, blindness, deafness, epilepsy, and autism.

Eight or nine out of ten babies infected in the first trimester were damaged. That’s 85%.

An American vaccine scientist predicted another outbreak would occur sometime between 1970-1973. By 1965, he had developed a rubella vaccine, shown in testing to be safe and effective. By 1969, he had modified a version of the vaccine, and a hundred million doses were distributed throughout the United States.

Rubella epidemic averted.

Today, children are routinely vaccinated for rubella (it’s the “R” in the MMR vaccine). In 2005, the CDC declared rubella eliminated in the United States.

Everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and Marie Curie, but Maurice Hilleman has saved more lives than any other scientist.

Maurice Hilleman is the father of modern vaccines. He is considered by many the greatest scientist of the 20th century, but few know his name.

Hilleman developed nine of the fifteen routine vaccines given to children today. Hilleman developed the first vaccine against human cancer, the hepatitis B vaccine. He developed and collaborated on many more vaccines, but never named any of them after himself, with one small exception…

The mumps vaccine in use today is manufactured using a strain of the virus Hilleman swabbed from the throat of his own little daughter when she awoke sick in the night. There’s a famous photo of Hilleman’s younger daughter, Kirsten, being vaccinated with the “Jeryl Lynn Mumps Vaccine”. Big sister Jeryl Lynn is close by, comforting her baby sister.

Jeryl Lynn and Kirsten photo

Jeryl Lynn Hilleman with her sister, Kirsten, in 1966

 

jeryl Lynn Mumps vaccine photo

The Jeryl Lynn Mumps Vaccine

 

Despite responsibility for saving countless lives, no vaccine carries the name Hilleman.

*****

We have collective short-term memories. When public health measures prevent or reduce the impact of a crisis, we forget what we were afraid of. When we dodge a bullet, we forget what won the battle.

No one knows Hilleman because few us know rubella. We aren’t afraid our teenagers will die of diphtheria. We don’t fear disability or death from polio, and we aren’t afraid our babies will die of measles or whooping cough. A generation does not fear mumps or chicken pox and the deadly complications that might follow.

At the end of his life, Hilleman’s groundbreaking MMR vaccine was the target for a rising anti-vaccination movement. A British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, claimed the MMR was responsible for an “epidemic” of autism. Hilleman died before Wakefield was discredited and lost his medical license for his fraudulent claims.

The general public has been harder to convince, however, and long-vanquished diseases are popping up in anti-vax hotspots.

We’ve forgotten what it was like.

When we flattened the Covid-curve, many declared “See! It’s all overblown! Back to business as usual! We aren’t afraid!”

Sometimes, what we don’t know (or don’t remember) can hurt us.

Maurice Hilleman would have been 101 this month.

time capsule contribution Hilleman 1999

Replica of the six vaccines put into the National Millennium Time Capsule by Dr. Hilleman. (Washington, D.C., 1999).

 

*****

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I

(Hillsong United “So Will I“)

*****

 

 

science cat explores gravity