The 9-11 anniversary coverage was replete with “United We Stand” imagery and sloganeering, but just how “united” are we? Whatever the issue or challenge “united we stand” would be a good place to start. Why can’t we unite to save the lives of our children?
Being united begins with considering the greater good, the public benefit, and how we can unify around it. First let’s look at COVID in the US. Clearly here, uniting around masks and vaccines should be easy, no? Apparently not, as too many horribly misinformed adults think “my child, my choice” is worthy of a line in the sand. Thank goodness we didn’t behave this way in the 50s or we’d have millions of children afflicted with polio. The scourge of polio reared its head, posing a clear and present danger, and the nation led with science, developing a vaccine that prevented polio. And without hesitation, the nation united behind the need for universal polio vaccines. Today, we routinely accept that:
- For our children to attend public schools in NM, they must produce proof of vaccination against: polio; diphtheria; tetanus; measles; flu; hepatitis B; pneumococcal; varicella; and Hepatitis A.
That’s 9 vaccines, and aside from a very small percentage of children who are exempted for religious or health reasons, nary a whimper from parents about “my child, my choice.” So what is the cause of so much resistance to the COVID vaccine? We looked back at the U.S. reaction to the introduction of the polio vaccine to see what may have changed. From NPR:.
The mass inoculation of millions of American children against polio in 1955, like the vaccinations of millions of American adults against COVID-19 in 2021, was a triumph of science.
But the polio vaccine had overwhelming public acceptance, while stubborn pockets of vaccine hesitancy persist across the U.S. for the COVID-19 vaccine. Why the difference? One reason, historians say, is that in 1955, many Americans had an especially deep respect for science.
“If you had to pick a moment as the high point of respect for scientific discovery, it would have been then,” says David M. Oshinsky, a medical historian at New York University and the author of Polio: An American Story. “After World War II, you had antibiotics rolling off the production line for the first time. People believed infectious disease was [being] conquered. And then this amazing vaccine is announced. People couldn’t get it fast enough.”
Today, the unprecedented speed of the COVID-19 vaccines’ development, along with a flood of disinformation on the internet about all vaccines, has led to a lingering hesitancy among some Americans to receive the increasingly available COVID-19 shots.
“In hindsight, Operation Warp Speed wasn’t the best name,” says Oshinsky. “It sounds like the project prioritized speed over everything else. They did roll it out quickly, but the FDA and CDC have done an amazing job of testing the vaccines and ensuring their safety and efficacy.”
So confident was the public in the research leading up to the polio vaccine that by the time the Salk vaccine was ready for experimental testing in 1954, the parents of 600,000 children volunteered their own offspring as research subjects.
When the results of those studies showed the vaccine to be safe and effective in 1955, church bells rang. Loudspeakers in stores, offices and factories blared the news. People crowded around radios. “There was jubilation,” says Stewart. People couldn’t wait to sign their kids up for a shot.NPR: “Can’t Help Falling In Love With A Vaccine: How Polio Campaign Beat Vaccine Hesitancy”
Th roll out of the polio vaccine was not perfect, but confidence in science and the vaccine prevailed.
Then tragedy struck. One of the six labs manufacturing the vaccine, Cutter Laboratories in Berkeley, Calif., made a terrible mistake. The correct list of ingredients for the Salk vaccine called for polio virus that had been inactivated, but in the Cutter facility, the process of killing the virus proved defective. As a result, batches of the company’s vaccine went out that mistakenly contained active polio virus. Of the 200,000 children who received the defective vaccine, 40,000 got polio from it; 200 were left with varying degrees of paralysis, and 10 died.NPR: “Can’t Help Falling In Love With A Vaccine: How Polio Campaign Beat Vaccine Hesitancy”
Today, rather than bells ringing in the news of a safe vaccine, people need to be required to get vaccinated and fierce resistance erupts to every mask requirement. Instead of uniting behind masks and the vaccine, there is fierce resistance. Why?
In December 2020, the Boston Globe published “How Americans came to mistrust science,” a report that describes how decades-long assault on science, the media, and government has eroded public confidence in these institutions. From The Globe;
Science is under fire as never before in the United States. Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump and his Republican allies dismiss the findings of health experts as casually as those of climate scientists. Indeed, conservatives sometimes portray scientists as agents of a liberal conspiracy against American institutions and values. Since the 1990s GOP leaders have worked to limit the influence of scientists in areas ranging from global warming to contraception to high school biology curricula.”Boston Globe, “How Americans came to mistrust science“
Faux-news outlets are eager to fan this mistrust with hysterical reports based on rumor and innuendo, getting a helping hand in spreading misinformation from social media outlets. Misinformation campaigns also fuel fears of voter fraud and denial of the scale of the looming climate catastrophe.
Imagine the outcry that would erupt if a similar mistake to the Cutter Labs polio vaccine tragedy would occur with the COVID vaccine. Calls to impeach Biden would erupt and vaccination rates would plummet. Inevitably, something had to go wrong in the rush to produce COVID vaccines. From NPR:
In April, the U.S. campaign against COVID-19 suffered a blow too. Reports that an extremely rare but serious blood-clotting disorder might have resulted from Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine — one of the three authorized for use against COVID-19 in the U.S. — once again raised the question of whether possible harms caused by a vaccine might derail people’s confidence in a public health campaign at a crucial time.
On April 13, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration jointly announced that among the 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered to date, six cases of a serious blood-clotting issue had been recorded, and one had woman died.
Ten days later, after a careful review of those cases and others, the pause was lifted and immunization with the vaccine resumed, with new guidance for recipients and doctors about what to look for in the way of symptoms and how to treat these extremely rare events.
Polio vaccinations were temporarily halted in 1955 following the Cutter error as well. In both incidents, health officials followed the science. After Cutter’s manufacturing error was pinpointed as the problem, vaccinations restarted within weeks, with renewed quality control efforts and minus any involvement from Cutter Laboratories.
In 1955, mothers and fathers jumped right back in following the Cutter tragedy, once again signing permission slips and lining their kids up to get their polio shot. It was widely understood and accepted that the risks of polio were a much greater threat than the risks of the vaccine.NPR: “Can’t Help Falling In Love With A Vaccine: How Polio Campaign Beat Vaccine Hesitancy”
But today, any chink in any armor is blasted across media and social media, fueling mistrust and resistance, and GOP leadership using any misstep to attack Biden. And so, rather than “united we stand” we fight the vaccine divided. As a result, many thousands of Americans will fall. And eventually we will all fall, if not to COVID, to climate disaster or some other threat where united action is required to face down a looming challenge. If we learn nothing else from the delicate balance of nature, it is that we are all connected. “United we stand, divided we fall” is more than a slogan, it is a truism we would be well advised to honor.
In solidarity and hope,
Paul & Roxanne