Expert Voices

Salk's 100th: Anti-Vaccination Would Trouble Polio Hero (Op-Ed)

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(Image credit: Vaccine photo via Shutterstock)

Kevin Kimberlin is chairman of Spencer Trask and co-founded the Immune Response Corporation with Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine. The anniversary of Jonas Salk's 100th birthday is Oct. 28, 2014. Kimberlin contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

Dr. Jonas Salk faced down one of the most frightening viral epidemics in modern times. And he stopped it in its tracks. The polio vaccine — brilliantly created through years of painstaking and meticulous research during Salk's tenure as director of the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine — was cause for celebration by a grateful public.

In the early 1950s, polio was everywhere . The epidemic crippled and killed thousands of American children every year. Public swimming pools closed. Newspapers printed the names of paralyzed children. Mothers dreaded taking their children anywhere. 

Then Salk, in a breathtaking demonstration of the power of vaccinology, launched one of the largest experiments in medical history — a sweeping field trial encompassing 1.8 million children. The vaccine was a miracle. After its introduction, polio infection rates plummeted 97 percent within five years.

Tuesday (Oct. 28) would have been Jonas Salk's 100th birthday. Upon Salk's death, Francis Crick, who co-discovered the helix DNA structure, remarked, "Few have made one discovery that has benefited humanity so greatly." 

Actively in pursuit of an HIV vaccine, I was fortunate to work closely with Salk, raising money to fund his research. One day, I saw him wince with pain and asked him, "Why are you doing this? Why do you push yourself so hard?" His reply was one I won't forget: "I don't want my life to have been lived in vain." Taken aback, I said to him, "Jonas, you of all people don't have to worry about that." He thought otherwise.

Were he alive today, Salk would no doubt be focused on developing a noninfectious Ebola vaccine. But I believe another danger, a much larger threat to Americans than Ebola, would be of greater concern to him — with the potential to undermine civilization's greatest advance in health. That threat is the small, but growing, minority of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. 

A triumph of science, widespread immunization in America has lowered the incidence of many devastating diseases by 99 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and according to the World Health Organization, vaccines prevent 2.5 million deaths per year across the globe. 

Yet, in the face of this indisputable progress, an anti-vaccine tide is rising up. The result? Nearly 14 million American children have missed their three doses of DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccine, according to a study by Tom Scully recently reported in Nature.

When children are not vaccinated, bad things happen. In Philadelphia, a 1991 outbreak of measles — a disease that had been all but eliminated in America — infected and killed 15 children. Their parents had refused to immunize them. And this doesn't happen just in lower-income or less educated populations, where other disease inequality occurs. According to the California Department of Public Health, at one kindergarten in Orange County (one of the wealthiest counties in the United States), 60 percent of the students claim exemptions and are not immunized. [Race Against Time to Prevent Deadly Spread of Polio (Op-Ed )]

Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, points out that 6 percent of children entering kindergarten in Vermont are not protected by vaccines. This trend affects more than children: Caplan said approximately 4,000 to 40,000 Americans die from influenza every year. Most of them failed to get a flu shot.

The majority of American children today are blissfully unaware of many childhood diseases that their grandparents' generation faced. That is because a public health immunization policy has boosted the natural immune response of millions. In addition, routine childhood immunization protects other children. Parents who opt out put entire communities at risk of outbreaks. 

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To protect the public when this happens, the courts can step in to require vaccination. The Massachusetts court explained, "Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow [that] they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children."

Salk's extraordinary contributions to public health gave him influence. Today, he might use that influence to protect children from anti-vaccination beliefs.

Because he saved the lives of so many children, Salk was a hero to presidents. Dwight Eisenhower choked up giving him thanks for saving so many children from polio. Ronald Reagan declared May 6, 1985, Jonas Salk Day. Bill Clinton called Jonas Salk his hero. 

Salk, however, thought of himself as a humanitarian concerned with the health of everyone. "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors," he said.

So confronting both Ebola and declining immunization rates, his message would be the same: Vaccinations work.

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