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Our Vaccination Heroes

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In this insane anti-vax era, it is worth remembering the terrible diseases that used to be common and now are preventable or even eliminated (or nearly so) thanks to doctors coming up with life-saving vaccines. The co-creator of the rubella vaccine, Paul Parkman, died the other day and his Times obit is worth considering in this context:

Rubella, also known as German measles because German scientists classified it in the 19th century, is a moderate illness for most patients, identified by a spotty and often itchy red rash. But in pregnancies, it can cause infants to be born with severe physical and mental impairments and can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths.

When Dr. Parkman was a pediatric medical resident in the 1950s at the State University Health Science Center (now the SUNY Upstate Medical University) in Syracuse, he once recalled, he anguished over showing a new mother her stillborn baby whose rash, he would learn later, probably resulted from the mother’s infection with rubella during pregnancy.

In 1964 and 1965, rubella — an epidemic that struck every six to nine years — caused about 11,000 pregnancies to be miscarried, 2,100 newborns to die and 20,000 infants to be born with birth defects.

The rubella virus was identified and isolated in the early 1960s by Dr. Parkman and his colleagues at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., and a team of researchers at Harvard University led by Thomas H. Weller.

In 1966, Dr. Parkman, Dr. Harry M. Meyer Jr. and their collaborators at the National Institutes of Health, including Maurice R. Hilleman, disclosed that they had perfected a vaccine to prevent rubella. Dr. Parkman and Dr. Meyer assigned their patents to the N.I.H. so that the vaccines could be manufactured, distributed and administered promptly.

“I never made a nickel from those patents because we wanted them to be freely available to everybody,” he said in an oral history interview for the N.I.H. in 2005.

President Lyndon B. Johnson thanked the researchers, noting that they were among the few who could “number themselves among those who directly and measurably advance human welfare, save precious lives, and bring new hope to the world.”

Still, after Dr. Parkman retired from the government in 1990, as director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, he expressed concern about what he called the unfounded skepticism that persisted about the value of vaccines.

“With the exception of safe drinking water, vaccines have been the most successful medical interventions of the 20th century,” he wrote in 2002 in Food and Drug Administration Consumer, an agency journal.

“As I look back on my career, I have come to think that perhaps I was involved in the easy part,” he added. “It will be for others to take on the difficult task of maintaining the protections that we struggled to achieve. We must prevent the spread of this vaccine nihilism, for if it were to prevail, our successes could be lost.”

It must have been brutal for a guy like Parkman to watch the anti-vax idiots rise in influence during his later years and then watch the response to the worst pandemic in a century and an incredibly rapid vaccine to save lives from it be rejected by millions of Americans because Joe Rogan and the other real political influencers of our time told them not to take it. In the end, rubella was eliminated not only because of medical science but because people had the understanding and social cohesion to agree to take it. Today? Forget about it. My body is pure! Don’t tell me what to do! RFK Jr 24!

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