Tag: vaccines

Blog Posts (26)

January 30, 2017

A Necessary Retelling of the Smallpox Vaccine Story

A curious confluence of events unfolded Tuesday night. Just hours before President Obama uttered the powerful “science and reason matter” in his farewell address, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced that the incoming president had tapped him to head a committee on vaccine safety.

RFK Jr. is not a pediatric immunologist nor an epidemiologist, but a vocal “vaccine skeptic.” Although the PEOTUS dialed back on the purported appointment shortly after social media erupted, a tweet from March 28, 2014 makes his analysis of the history and science of vaccines clear: Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesnt feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!

As a child I devoured books on the history of medicine. One of my favorite stories was how Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine, testing an approach that had been used for centuries. Knowing his story made me understand why my little sister had to shriek her way through shots for the “childhood diseases,” while I’d suffered through chickenpox, mumps, and both types of measles. My pediatrician predicted I’d end up deaf and brain damaged after a month with measles.

Now I think the tale of Edward Jenner needs retelling, for those who may not have heard it.


A vaccine is a pathogen, or part of one, whose presence in a human body is sufficient to evoke an immune response, yet not complete or active enough to transmit the illness. When the vaccinated person encounters the wild pathogen, the protective antibody response is immediate, thanks to immune memory. Conquering polio provides a dramatic vaccine story, which DNA Science covered here.

Vaccines aren’t just biomedicine, but bioethics too. The herd immunity that arises at the population level protects us all, illustrating the principle of beneficence: action that is done for the benefit of others. Vaccinate enough people against a particular pathogen, and it can’t find enough sensitive people to rampage through a population. In practical terms, when parents refuse to vaccinate their children, other children can die. Yet vaccines are not entirely risk-free; no medical treatment or procedure is. Most reactions are due to allergy or the necessary revving up of the immune response — here’s a list from a reliable source, the CDC.


The vaccine-autism link arose from a paper published in The Lancet in 1998, in which English physician Andrew Wakefield described “a pervasive developmental disorder” in 12 children. The large, red word “RETRACTED” appears on the first page. The study had no controls and a tiny sample size, but case reports are ok in the medical literature given appropriate caveats. What wasn’t ok (among many other problems) was that Dr. Wakefield was being paid by attorneys representing allegedly harmed children. When this news surfaced, The Lancet, in February 2010, again fully retracted the paper — in case anyone missed the earlier discrediting.

Apparently the president-elect did not get that memo.

But he’s certainly old enough to remember how polio vanished after kids started lining up at school to receive vaccines. Maybe they didn’t do that at the military school his parents sent him to (see “Confident. Incorrigible. Bully: Little Donny was a lot like candidate Donald Trump” from the Washington Post.)

And so in the interest of educating the new administration on the history of vaccines, here is the story of Edward Jenner and his testing of the smallpox vaccine that has rid the world of this terrible disease. (It’s from my first textbook, with apologies to McGraw-Hill. I plagiarize myself for the greater good.)


“Vaccine technology dates back to the eleventh century in China. Based on the observation that those who recovered from smallpox never got it again, people would collect the scabs of infected individuals and crush them into a powder, which they inhaled or rubbed into pricked skin.

Dr. Edward Jenner

In 1796, the wife of a British ambassador to Turkey witnessed the Chinese method of vaccination, and mentioned it to an English country physician, Edward Jenner. Intrigued, Jenner had himself vaccinated the Chinese way, and then thought of a different approach.

It was widely known that people who milked cows contracted a mild illness called cowpox, but did not get smallpox. The cows became ill from infected horses. Since the virus seemed to jump species, Jenner wondered, would exposing a healthy person to cowpox lesions protect against smallpox?

Wrote Jenner of the horse ailment that farmers transferred to cows: ‘It is an inflammation and swelling in the heel, from which issues matter possessing properties of very peculiar kind, which seems capable of generating a disease in the human body … which bears so strong a resemblance to the smallpox that I think it highly probably it may be the source of the disease.’

A physician inspects the growth of cowpox lesions on a milkmaid.

A slightly different virus causes cowpox than smallpox, but Jenner’s approach would prove successful, leading to development of the first vaccine (from the Latin vaca for “cow”). Unable to experiment on himself because he’d already taken the Chinese vaccine, Jenner instead tried his first vaccine on 8-year-old James Phipps. On May 14, 1796, he dipped a needle in pus oozing from a small sore on a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, then scratched the boy’s arm with it.

Young James survived, and the smallpox vaccine was born. Eventually, the vaccine would completely eradicate the disease, although several nations maintain the virus in storage for research purposes.”


Smallpox lesions had a characteristic central dimple, and if a person survived for awhile, the lesions grew together, covering the body. Instead of that horrific and painful disfigurement, I have a scar from my smallpox vaccine on my upper left arm. My kids didn’t even need smallpox vaccines, for the last case in the US was in 1949, and the last in the world, in Somalia, in 1977, according to the CDC.

The success of vaccine campaigns is a vivid reminder that, as President Obama said, science and reason matter. Can someone please invent a vaccine against willful ignorance? Stat.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.



September 17, 2015

Science anyone?

by Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.

Plenty of pundits are analyzing the Wednesday night GOP debate in terms of who won and who lost.

February 20, 2015

What should docs do with parents who don’t vaccinate?

by Jenna Lillemoe, B.A.
by Arthur Caplan , Ph.D.

This year has marked the largest measles outbreak in decades with over 102 cases documented since December.…

February 2, 2015

Immunization Idiocy

<p style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><span style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;">I knew that I was going to write this blog post about the news concerning the resurgence of measles and its relationship to the dangerous and misguided anti-vaccination movement. The difficulty was with all the lunacy out there I did not quite know where to start. I grew up in the era prior to vaccination against childhood diseases. I had measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox. I remember the fear people had of these infectious diseases and even as a child I was aware of how welcome these immunizations were when they became available. It seems absolutely inconceivable that decades later people are advocating against vaccines and placing their children and others at risk of infection with potentially devastating diseases.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal" style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><span style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;">There now seems to be a perfect storm of parents making poor choices for their children, a few vocal physicians giving bad advice, a staggering number of ill-informed celebrities saying truly stupid things, and political cowardice and hypocrisy failing to react appropriately. Let’s talk about the history leading to this unfortunate circumstance. Keep in mind that in the year 2000 measles was considered to have been vanquished in the US. There were a few dozen cases all contracted by people who had travelled overseas. However, these few cases were not transmitted to others because the rate of immunization was so high, despite the high level of contagiousness. This circumstance has now changed with people forgoing the vaccinations and like-minded people creating communities with high levels of the unvaccinated.</span></p> <p class="MsoNormal" style="font-size: 11.1999998092651px; line-height: 19.0400009155273px;"><strong style="color: #34405b; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; line-height: 19.0400009155273px; font-size: 12px;">The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our <a style="color: #000099; text-decoration: underline;" href="/Academic/bioethics/index.cfm">website</a>.</strong><span style="color: #34405b; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; line-height: 19.0400009155273px; font-size: 12px;"> </span></p>
June 24, 2014

Pharmaceutical firms find it hard to exit essential drugs market

[TheEconomicTimes] Pharmaceutical companies having more than a 1% market share for any essential drugs may find it difficult to stop manufacturing those products. Since May, when the government brought into force a new drug-pricing system after a gap of 18 years, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority has denied such requests whenever the market share of […]
March 12, 2014

Public Health Education: Is Presenting The Facts Enough?

<p>Efforts to educate the public are based on the assumption that human beings can be persuaded by good reasons and evidence in formulating their responses to important questions about public health. But are things this straightforward? Are humans really this rational in how they make their decisions? </p> <p>Think of any social problem that is predicated on how people understand and use information to make good decisions for themselves, especially decisions that have significant social costs. For example, consider the question: does having a gun in one’s home make one more or less safe? A recent piece from the <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/dangerous-gun-myths.html?_=0&amp;_r=1&amp;&amp;gwh=E92C2DA8CA22F33EEDACF3709BE98F83&amp;gwt=regi">New York Times</a> is typical of the clear evidence presented from social science research to show that guns in the home “were fired far more often in accidents, criminal assaults, homicides or suicide attempts than in self-defense. For every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides.” Moreover, there is a strong risk factor of having a gun in the home for female homicides and intimidation of women. These data do not prevent gun rights advocates from passionately arguing against any limitations place on guns including assault rifles. In fact some pro-gun advocates falsely claim that any limitation of assault weapons would in fact make women less safe as though that the typical woman would not have the full ability to protect herself. It appears many people view the evidence through the lens of their preexisting set of assumptions, which makes them ignore the scientific evidence or to see it as biased; thus, they continue to believe that having guns in their homes make them safer.</p> <div><strong style="color: #34405b; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: 20px;">The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our <a style="color: #000099; text-decoration: underline;" href="http://www.amc.edu/Academic/bioethics/index.cfm">website</a>.</strong></div>
March 4, 2011

Caplan's Legal Liability for Lax Vaccination

This week Arthur Caplan has made a highly provocative argument in his MSNBC Breaking Bioethics column: Anyone harmed by the New Mexico woman who had measles while traveling on an airplane should sue her for damages.…

February 4, 2010

Caplan: Zealot's Bad Study Leads Autism Community Astray for A Decade

As Arthur Caplan tells us in this week’s MSNBC column, one bad study and a zealot’s pursuit of a theory can lead an entire movement and entire generation of parents astray.…

January 14, 2010

Did Anyone Know It Was National Vaccination Week?

Over on the Practical Bioethics blog, I asked the above question today, based on a story live from Kansas City, MO.…

October 8, 2009

In New York, You Get the Shot Or Walk the Plank

As Art Caplan’s most recent MSNBC column explains, New York is taking a hard line on health care workers getting their flu vaccinations this year.…

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News (1)

July 25, 2013 2:50 pm

Too Few Girls Getting HPV Vaccine: CDC

Efforts to vaccinate girls against cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) have stalled, officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday.