View from Mudsock Heights

It seems likely that before very long there will be a vaccine to prevent infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the pathogen that produces the disease called COVID-19.

In fact, there are likely to be multiple vaccines against it. While the vaccines vary, they’re all delivered by needle, about which more in a bit.

The vaccine(s) will be made available all over the place, sponsored by the U.S. government. Whether and how this will be affected by the transition, as also seems likely, from President Cringe to President Dunce, is unknown because politics has itself become a virulent and sometimes fatal disease.

There is some history, though, of public health authoritys’ involvement in vaccines. This extends back to calmer times, when the constant threat of nuclear annihilation was a concern (though not as great a worry as the anguish and fear that result when a person refers to another person by the wrong pronoun).

Well within living memory is the terror – real, palpable terror – that was the polio epidemic. There’s not space here to discuss just how awful it was, but there’s a lot of information available online, if you’re interested. The search for a vaccine was frantic. There was a promising candidate in 1935, but it was abandoned when it was shown to be less than 100 percent effective – a few of the test subjects died, and some others, who wouldn’t have, got polio.

There was widespread rejoicing when 20 years later it was announced that a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, based on the same theory as the 1935 version, had been deemed safe and effective. This vaccine required multiple doses, those after the initial inoculation being cheerfully called “booster shots.” Even then, manufacturing issues resulted in the vaccine imparting, not preventing, polio in a few cases. But it overwhelmingly reduced the incidence of polio, and product liability litigation was not yet the industry it is today. The vaccine was pushed by national, state, and local public health officials.

A few years later came the Sabin oral polio vaccine. It was ever so slightly less effective than the Salk injected vaccine – it used a greatly weakened live virus instead of Salk’s totally inactivated one – but had the advantage of being delivered orally: a pink droplet or two on a sugar cube at the elementary school where I received it from Bertha Fisher, the county nurse. It was widely distributed by the government and the polio epidemic was over.

Let’s jump ahead 15 years or so to another government-backed vaccination program. In 1976 it appeared that the H1N1 influenza virus – the same strain as the virus that killed as many as 100 million people worldwide in 1918-19 – was likely to sweep the U.S., resulting in many more thousands of deaths than the usual tens of thousands in a typical flu season. Finding an effective vaccine was placed on “fast track,” the 1970s version of “warp speed.” The virus had been isolated in January and by early September a vaccine had been approved. President Gerald Ford appeared on television to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, and he and his family got the shot on live television. There was a federal immunization program.

Then there began to be reports of some people who had received the vaccine coming down with Guillain–Barré syndrome, a disease of the nervous system that leads to muscle weakness and sometimes death. While the link was never firmly established the coverage of the possible connection was sufficient to kill the vaccination program (about a quarter of the population had already been vaccinated). Gerald Ford failed to be elected president that year; it can be argued that the chief effect of the 1976 swine flu was President Jimmy Carter. The swine flu epidemic never took place; whether and to what extent the vaccination program figured in to its failure to appear is still debated, but the idea of a federally sponsored, quickly produced vaccine was tarnished.

We’ve learned a lot in the last 44 years. The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, if it proves to be as safe and effective as it now appears to be, will be the first against a corona virus (a group whose members include the common cold). Reports from the Pfizer vaccine tests suggest that it’s not entirely carefree – one report has it that the vaccine itself produces symptoms resembling “a severe hangover.” Many vaccines have some follow-on effects, because vaccination by definition induces a response from the recipient’s immune system. That’s no reason not to get vaccinated, though it might suggest that one take care in scheduling when one receives what the British call the “jab.”

There are groups of persons who object to all vaccinations. The living ones are called “anti-vaxers.” I am not among them. Their motivations may be good, but their conclusions, I think, are not.

I’m more of an anti-needler. I really, really, really don’t like shots. This stems from an experience in my childhood in which an ill-placed injection caused my arm to swell up, and another one some years later when, after having been bitten by a brown recluse spider, I was given a shot by a med school student who held the syringe as if preparing to throw a dart. I was out like a light from the sight of it. I’m not heartened by the news that the proposed SARS-CoV-2 vaccine involves not one but two shots – and no, calling them “jabs” doesn’t make the prospect any more cheerful.

My guess is that I’m not alone in my aversion to needles. Though it is surely not the only reason, I think it was probably a factor in the polio epidemic not ending until Dr. Sabin came up with his vaccine-on-a-sugar cube. It’s my fervent – really, really, really fervent – hope that the researchers come up with a nasal vaccine similar to but better than the one now offered for the flu. (That version is not recommended for everyone, though I don’t know why.)

Actually, it would be good if science in its wisdom could come up with a general replacement for the needle, which was – I’m not making this up – developed after the observation of the fangs of poisonous snakes millennia ago, though it has been standard practice for only a couple hundred years. Is seems to me, though this is based in part on wishful thinking, that if we can produce miraculous new ways to prevent deadly diseases we should be able to find a less draconian way of getting them into the body.

I’d be first in line for that. I’m not worried about the severe hangover. I already have some experience with those.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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