Deadly history of vaccines highlights how important they are, says author

In the 1950s, one of the first polio vaccines to hit the market was administered to over 200,000 children in the mid-United States.

The defective vaccine contained an active virus, leaving 200 kids paralyzed and 10 dead.

The infamous Cutter Incident is a moment in the history of science that many might like to forget. But according to Meredith Wadman, author of The Vaccine Race, it's these very stories that highlight how important it is to remember the devastating diseases that have haunted humanity — and how far we've come toward getting rid of them.

"[The Vaccine Race] really recovers stories we need to recover," Wadman told host Stephen Quinn on CBC's The Early Edition.

A controversial history

Wadman's book follows the long and controversial history of vaccinations in North America. She covers the race between scientists to produce vaccines for diseases such as rubella, as well as the troubling work that many researchers undertook following the Second World War.

"It was standard U.S. medical practice that vulnerable populations — generally institutionalized groups, be they dying cancer patients, premature babies, ... [or] orphans — were used as essentially human guinea pigs," she said. "This was done with the sign-off and the approval of the medical research establishment."

Wadman says the tendency to give vulnerable people unreliable vaccines emerged from wartime rhetoric.

"It grew out of a World War 2 mentality — an-ends-justify-the-means mentality — when the aim was to get medicines and vaccines to soldiers at the front because civilization was at stake," she said. "But when the war ended, the mentality did not."

Wadman says loose regulations on vaccination testing persisted until the 1970s.

Anti-vax movement

The bulk of children today receive vaccinations for polio, chickenpox, influenza, measles and more. The research and administration of vaccines is rigorous and largely acclaimed by scientists.

In fact, the effectiveness of vaccines is one of the most widely agreed upon areas of science.

Today, however, the controversy continues to loom. A growing body of 'anti-vaxxers' have publicly challenged the medical benefits of vaccines. Consequently, some research suggests that the movement has contributed to recent outbreaks of measles.

Wadman says anti-vaxxers are often disconnected from the cold, historic reality of widespread, crippling diseases like rubella and polio.

"I think it comes from complacency — we don't see these diseases anymore, therefore we think we don't need to vaccinate against them," she said. "[But] the reason we don't see them is because we continue to vaccinate against them."

"We need to recover those stories to remind ourselves just how important it is to continue vaccinating our kids."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Deadly history of vaccines highlights how important they are, says author