Hon­our their sac­ri­fices

Some of to­day’s life-sav­ing vac­cines have a mo­rally am­bigu­ous his­tory in­volv­ing in­vol­un­tary test­ing.

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“Science with­out con­science is noth­ing but the ruin of the soul” – Fran­cois Ra­belais 1494-1553

MERED­ITH Wald­man, who has been writ­ing about bio­med­i­cal re­search politics for 20 years, starts The Vac­cine Race with a har­row­ing story set in Philadel­phia in the mid1960s: It re­counts the short-lived and mis­er­able life of a baby girl born to a mother who con­tracted rubella (Ger­man measles) while preg­nant. It makes a pow­er­ful im­pact on the reader, un­der­lin­ing the fact that the science con­ducted in lab­o­ra­to­ries is not di­vorced from the real world and real lives.

But this is in no way a par­tic­u­larly un­usual or ex­cep­tional story – it is one that has been re­peated count­less times. But mer­ci­fully, that story now be­longs largely to the past, all be­cause of the rubella vac­cine.

Wald­man out­lines the devel­op­ment of the vac­cine, fo­cus­ing on the tu­mul­tuous ca­reer of Leonard Hayflick who rev­o­lu­tionised vac­ci­na­tion by us­ing hu­man cells to de­velop vac­cines; be­fore that, mon­key kid­ney cells were more com­monly used but they bore the risk of lurk­ing viruses.

Those hu­man cells, though, had to be sourced from some­where. They came on ice from Swe­den in the tiny lungs of an aborted foe­tus. From these tiny lungs Hayflick de­vel­oped the WI-38 cells that are still used more than half a cen­tury later.

The book weaves its way around the mo­rally am­bigu­ous and mo­rally re­pug­nant his­tory of vac­cines, from their com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion – some­thing that was quite un­usual at the time, and which brought Hayflick a lot of flak, ul­ti­mately de­rail­ing his ca­reer – to the hor­rific test­ing and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion car­ried out on peo­ple with­out their knowl­edge.

Healthy pris­on­ers were in­fected with hepati­tis, pre­ma­ture AfricanAmer­i­can ba­bies were used as guinea-pigs for po­lio vac­cines, in­tel­lec­tu­ally chal­lenged chil­dren were ex­per­i­mented upon. There is a litany of sys­temic hu­man rights abuses at the heart of the devel­op­ment of vac­cines, some of it con­tin­u­ing right up un­til the 1970s, all jus­ti­fied by the logic of “the greater good”, the ends jus­ti­fy­ing the means. Wald­man peels back the cover on this lit­tle-known his­tory in de­tails that made this reader re­coil.

But the sci­en­tists who car­ried out these ex­per­i­ments were not mad Dr Franken­stein out­liers. They rep­re­sented the cream of the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, were lauded as he­roes, and bank-rolled by the US gov­ern­ment be­cause they got the job done.

And we’re faced with the un­com­fort­able fact that many of these sac­ri­fices were not in vain. In­fant mor­tal­ity is at its low­est rate since such things have been recorded. Diph­the­ria, whoop­ing cough, po­lio, rubella – all have be­come rar­i­ties. But it’s un­clear whether the same re­sults could have been achieved by other meth­ods.

De­spite writ­ing an en­tire book on the sub­ject, Wald­man sug­gests that rather than re­vile the ac­tions of the sci­en­tists of the past, we should take the op­por­tu­nity to look at what is be­ing done at the mo­ment. In what ways is science fail­ing hu­man­ity at the mo­ment? Amer­ica’s opi­oid epi­demic springs to mind as one ex­am­ple. Or the sys­temic drug­ging of school chil­dren into sub­mis­sion and con­form­ity.

We are also faced with a new scourge, caused largely by the fail­ures of science’s twin, ed­u­ca­tion – the spread of those who ac­tively mis­trust and re­ject facts in favour of mag­i­cal think­ing. The anti-vac­ci­na­tion move­ment has been so rapid and vir­u­lent in its ex­pan­sion that ev­ery reader prob­a­bly knows of some­one who stands against science, who takes any ev­i­dence as proof of con­spir­acy, while at the same time be­ing the vec­tors of that which they fear the most. New out­breaks of measles and other dis­eases eas­ily pre­vented by vac­ci­na­tion are on the re­bound, not by any ge­netic mu­ta­tion but by per­haps well-in­ten­tioned but ul­ti­mately very dan­ger­ous wil­ful ig­no­rance.

As Wald­man says, we can hon­our the con­tri­bu­tion of those who were made to suf­fer, those who made sac­ri­fices, of­ten against their will or knowl­edge, so that the fu­ture can be a safer health­ier place, by con­tin­u­ing to vac­ci­nate chil­dren, by al­low­ing them the life­span and health that is and should be their birth right.

Au­thor: Pub­lisher:

Photo: mered­ith­wad­man.com

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