Chapters 6–8 Summary

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Last Updated on May 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1264

Chapter 6: A Litigation Nightmare

Despite having the support of prominent experts such as Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin, the vaccine announcement of 1976 invited criticism almost immediately. CBS journalists John Cochran and Robert Pierpoint began to investigate if the vaccine campaign was politically motivated or intended to “bolster Ford’s popularity.” Cochran and Pierpoint discovered that many CDC scientists privately disagreed with the mass vaccination plan.

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Yet preparations for the vaccination program continued. Since all vaccinations carry a tiny risk, critics feared that mass vaccination could cause adverse reactions in many people. On CBS Evening News, Dr. Goldfield of Fort Dix went as far as to say that the government could expect “approximately fifteen percent” of the population to suffer a “disability reaction.”

These concerns around safety put a temporary hold on the vaccination plans, but a swine flu scare in August spurred the US government into action. A group of people fell ill at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia, and twenty-six people died. Immediately, some experts began to ascribe the deaths to swine flu and questioned Congress’s decision to delay the vaccine. Although data showed that the respiratory sickness was not swine flu, the message was not lost on the government. If swine flu were to crop up, the criticisms in the absence of a vaccine would be “withering.”

The vaccine program was restarted, and the first round of immunizations took place on October 1. Ten days later, three elderly vaccinated patients died in Pittsburgh. Many counties suspended the vaccination program, fearing adverse effects. Though Dr. Sencer held a press conference stating that there was no known correlation between the deaths and the vaccine, the panic around vaccination had already become full-blown. In November, a Minnesota doctor reported increased cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nerve disorder, among vaccinated patients in his practice. The rare disease leads to a tingling of the limbs in the mildest cases, but in more severe instances, it can impair nerves that control swallowing and breathing, sometimes leading to death. More cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome began to show up all over the US.

The data seemed ominous, but the nerve disorder, with its varied symptoms, is also notoriously difficult to diagnose. Despite conflicting evidence, the government was forced to halt the vaccination program in December. A wave of damages claims, ultimately totaling $3.5 billion, were filed by 1980. In the end, though, the claims remained unpaid, as no clear correlation had been established between the vaccine and the disease. While some doctors were certain of the connection, epidemiologists opposed it. The enduring lesson from the episode, Dr. Keiji Fukuda summarizes, is not to “jump the gun and assume a pandemic is happening” when a new virus appears.

Chapter 7: John Dalton’s Eyeballs

In 1995, Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology was struck by an idea that led to an astonishing find in influenza research. Dr. Taubenberger came across an article in the February issue of Science magazine about the preserved eyeballs of scientist John Dalton (1766–1844). Dalton, the legendary chemist behind the atomic theory of matter, was color-blind. Dalton’s hypothesis was that something in the vitreous fluid of his eyeballs caused color-blindness, and he asked his assistant to autopsy his eyes after his death. Though the autopsy proved Dalton wrong, the scientist’s eyeballs were preserved in a jar. Meanwhile, by 1995, a revolutionary technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) had enabled scientists to extract and study the smallest of cells. The Science article proposed that PCR be used to extract nerve cells...

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