Antivaccinationists versus Jonas Salk's centennial

One thing that happened this week that I didn’t get around to writing about is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jonas Salk, which was October 28. In the annals of medicine, few people have had as immediate a positive effect as Jonas Salk did when he developed the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). At the time the IPV became available in 1955, annual epidemics of polio were a regular feature of American life, causing panics and closing public swimming pools with a distressing frequency, causing thousands of cases of paralysis per year and many deaths. Indeed, in 1952 one particularly bad outbreak resulted in over 20,000 cases of paralysis and 3,000 deaths. Yes, some of my readers are old enough to remember the bad old days. They understand why the polio vaccine was greeted with celebrations and gratitude in a way that no one born after that time can quite understand. People who are old enough to remember that time understand the fear of polio from those days viscerally, whereas to people like me, as pro-vaccine as I am, it’s still an abstraction. Even as a middle-aged dude who was born in the 1960s, I’ve never lived in a time where there wasn’t a vaccine for polio and several other vaccine-preventable childhood diseases.

Not surprisingly, a lot of praise and memorials honoring Salk’s great achievement hit the Internet on the 28th, including even a Google Doodle:


And tributes describing much of the background work and just what a challenge it was to produce the first IPV, how he obtained the funding, and the context of the times in which Salk developed his vaccine. It was a truly monumental achievement, fully deserving of the day of celebration and remembrance earlier this week, including his decision not to patent the vaccine, which, although not as altruistic as sometimes portrayed, from my perspective was still a refreshing contrast to how research is done today. Also, Salk’s vaccine is likely to become more important again than the oral polio vaccine (OPV) with the endgame for the eradication of polio in sight.

Of course, not everyone is happy about the centennial celebration of Salk’s birth. I bet you can guess who is less than thrilled with all the attention that the IPV and its inventor received this week. Not surprisingly, our “friend” Anne Dachel, “media editor” at the antivaccine crank blog known as Age of Autism is very displeased about an article about Salk that appeared on MSNBC. True to form, she saw the centennial celebration of Salk’s birth as an opportunity to attack the polio vaccine using typical antivaccine tropes. Heck, she used it as an opportunity to attack more than just the polio vaccine. For instance, she uses the opportunity to attack the flu vaccine as well, in the meantime linking to the MSNBC article to direct her flying monkey squadron there to bombard the comment sections there with antivaccine turds, with Dachel showing the way. Also, as is usually the case, the antivaccine attacks on the polio vaccine and Salk’s legacy quite clearly put the lie to the claim made by antivaccinationists, usually in a wounded, righteously outraged “How dare you say I’m anti-vaccine?” tone of voice, that they are “not antivaccine” but rather “vaccine safety activists.”

First, Dachel links to this bit by a woman named Kelleigh Nelson regurgitating the antivaccine trope that inadvertent contamination of polio vaccine stocks in the early 1960s with the SV40 virus led to cancer. Of course, what relevance this has to do with Jonas Salk is unclear, given that it was Albert Sabin’s OPV that was contaminated with SV40. I also explained in my usual excruciating detail about a year ago exactly why this particular antivaccine meme is, as all antivaccine memes are, misleading misinformation and lamented how I fully expect that this particular meme will continue for the rest of my life, with the same few articles evolving only slightly, showing up periodically, being Tweeted all over the Internet, and spread all over Facebook, being refuted, and disappearing for a while, only to show up again later. As I pointed out, zombie memes like this never die. They just keep coming back again and again and again and again. And then they come back some more. Proving her utter shamelessness, Nelson conflates the SV40 contamination with the Cutter incident, in which early batches of Salk’s IPV manufactured by Cutter Laboratories, one of the five pharmaceutical companies granted licenses to produce the vaccine, were inadequately inactivated, all for a little guilt by association directed at the Salk vaccine. In brief, the Cutter incident occurred when, due to inadequate inactivation, vaccine made by Cutter Laboratories gave polio to a lot of children. How this came about was recounted by Paul Offit in a New England Journal of Medicine article on the subject published near the 50th anniversary of the Cutter incident in 2005:

The Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Communicable Diseases Center (a precursor of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) was asked to determine whether polio vaccine was causing the paralysis. The agency’s scientists found that two production pools made by Cutter Laboratories (accounting for 120,000 doses) contained live poliovirus. Among the children who had received vaccine from these pools, abortive polio (characterized by headache, stiff neck, fever, and muscle weakness) developed in 40,000; 51 were permanently paralyzed; and 5 died. Cutter’s vaccine also started a polio epidemic: 113 people in the children’s families or communities were paralyzed, and 5 died. It was one of the worst pharmaceutical disasters in U.S. history.

Subsequent studies found that cell debris contained in Cutter’s vaccine had prevented adequate exposure of virus particles to formaldehyde. The federal requirements for vaccine manufacture were revised, and between 1955 and 1962, a total of 400 million doses of safe, inactivated polio vaccine were distributed in the United States; the incidence of polio decreased dramatically.

Yes, the Cutter incident was a major screw-up with incredibly disastrous consequences. There’s no other way to put it. However, the incident did lead to tightened standards and greater vaccine safety, making it relevant today only in a historical context. It’s also somewhat understandable, if not forgivable. If you put yourself into the context of the times, where polio was paralyzing tens of thousands of people and killing hundreds every year, some years worse than others, it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand how the urgency and rush to get everyone vaccinated once an effective vaccine was available might have led to mistakes and inadequate rigor in the manufacturing process in one plant. This is not to excuse the error, but rather to try to understand how it might have happened from the perspective of our time, when polio is virtually nonexistent in this country, thanks to Salk’s and Sabin’s vaccines. Again, people too young to remember the annual polio epidemics of the time (in other words, people under about 65, the large majority of our readers) are unlikely to be able to understand other than on an abstract, intellectual level, never having seen relatives and friends paralyzed or killed by polio.

It’s also complete nonsense to claim that the Cutter incident is being “covered up.” If this is a coverup, it’s the most incompetent coverup in the world. I suppose that Paul Offit’s article in the NEJM, only one of the most widely read medical journals in the world, was part of the “cover up,” along with his book on the same topic. Maybe the spate of news stories that appeared in 2005 around the 50th anniversary of the Cutter incident were part of the “cover up” too. I’d be willing to bet that there will be a new spate of such articles next year to commemorate its 60th anniversary. Certainly, at the very minimum, I expect that beginning in April or so next year antivaccinationists will be cranking up the rhetoric over the Cutter incident.

It has about as much to do with vaccines today as the lack of seatbelts and airbags in automobiles in the 1950s, coupled with the use of steering wheels that were not collapsible in a collision and therefore had a distressing tendency to impale drivers involved in head-on collisions, have to do with auto safety today: Little or nothing. Hilariously, Kelleigh takes the conspiracy mongering even beyond the usual level by antivaccinationists, cranking it up to 11. For instance, she darkly insinuates murder to cover up the SV40 contamination:

But back to Dr. Mary Sherman who worked for Dr. Ochsner. Mary Sherman was murdered on 21st July 1964. She had been stabbed in the heart, arm, leg and stomach. Her mattress had been set on fire, but her massive burns could not have come from the smoking mattress. The crime has never been solved. Edward Haslam published “Dr. Mary’s Monkey,” in 2007 and argues that Dr. Alton Ochsner organized “one of the 159 covert research centers which the CIA had admitted to setting up.” Haslam believes that Ochsner recruited the brilliant researcher and physician Mary Sherman to run the research operation. The project was set up 23 March 1962 and Dr. Sherman was allegedly involved in carrying out secret research into developing a vaccine to prevent an epidemic of soft-tissue cancers caused by polio vaccines contaminated with SV-40.

Now that’s some weapons-grade crazy right there. Reading the Wikipedia entry on Sherman is also illuminating, with even more conspiracy theories, so much so that there are notes about how concern has been expressed that the section on Sherman’s death in this entry “lends undue weight to certain ideas relative to the article as a whole” and that the “the neutrality of this section is disputed.” That’s a “Well, duh!” statement if ever I heard one. The section on Sherman’s death is a veritable cornucopia of half-baked tinfoil hat conspiracy theories regarding her murder, including one that claims that “Sherman died in an accident involving a particle accelerator used in secret night-time cancer-related research on behalf of US intelligence, with Sherman being moved to her apartment and stabbed to cover up the incident.” Haslam’s book, on the other hand, was reviewed by a real criminologist, Mike Sutton, who found its speculation to be of similar caliber. Perhaps my favorite quote from the review is:

I think that Dr Mary’s Monkey provides a valuable bad data source for scholars of pseudo-scholarship. The book reveals how a lone author stringing together intangible and often highly personal anecdotal information, often of unverified accuracy, constructs the foundations for a dubious conspiracy theory.

Dr Mary’s Monkey is essential reading for anyone interested in how intelligent and seemingly respectable authors embrace evidence that supports their aims, while paying far less attention to that which does not.

But this is still all about the SV40 meme, which is about Sabin’s OPV, not Salk’s IPV. It was fun digression, particularly the part about the conspiracy theories about Mary Stewart, but not entirely germane to the antivaccine conspiracy mongering about the Salk vaccine. On the other hand, the very fact that Dachel would reference such a conspiracy-minded broadside regurgitating common antivaccine tropes about the polio vaccine, both injected and oral, plus some conspiracies I hadn’t heard of before, tells you all you need to know whenever you hear an antivaccine activist claim she is not “anti-vaccine.” At the very least, it demonstrates the depth of hate and suspicion directed at Jonas Salk by antivaccinationists, not because of the Cutter incident, which was not his fault, but because he invented the first effective polio vaccine and is widely (and correctly) viewed as a hero of science.

Antivaccine loons really, really hate that.

Another link demonstrating the displeasure of antivaccinationists at being reminded of a medical success story and how the IPV and later the OPV resulted in the comes from—where else?—that other wretched hive of scum and mommy quackery, Take a look at this discussion thread about Salk’s 100th anniversary, in which a mom going by the ‘nym MyFillingQuiver laments:

Just thought I’d pass along a little “hero worship” today..when Google is pulled up, it’s a drawing of Jonas Salk for his 100th birthday.

The Guardian headline reads:

a Good Time for Google to Remind us of The Power of Vaccines

I’m sure more people who are injured from vax’s remember the power of vaccines, than those who have not received them.

Not surprisingly, this entry leads to others chiming in about the same sorts of tropes to which Dachel linked, such as the Cutter incident in 1955 somehow having relevance to the polio vaccine now (again, it doesn’t) and SV40. One commenter named Deborah is particularly lacking in self-awareness:

Does it ever occur to the vaccine pushers that covering up points that are fairly easily uncovered undermines trust in the vaccine program? I think that a lot around vaccines is a “no brainer” people literally turn off their thinking when it comes to vaccines. Weird.

Funny, but I’ve often wondered if it ever occurs to antivaccinationists that spewing fairly easily debunked misinformation completely undermines any reason there might be to take them the least bit seriously? This applies not just to tropes about polio vaccines, but to all their many, many, many tropes about all vaccines. My guess is that the answer is no.

Antivaccinationists hate Salk because he is a hero and the basis of his having reached that status is his achievement in developing the injected polio vaccine. They will always hate Salk. That’s why they just couldn’t stand to be reminded of his achievement and to see him lionized. It drives them crazy. Good.