Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Do you know who invented the vaccine for mumps? Measles? Rubella? Hepatitis A and B? Chicken Pox? How about your annual flu vaccine?

Yeah, I didn't know, either. Which is really weird, since it's clear that these vaccine have changed the world and saved millions of lives. As it turns out, all the above vaccines were made by a single man - Maurice Hilleman.

Dr. Paul A. Offit's latest book, Vaccinated, is in part a biography of Hilleman, but is also a science history lesson covering the lives and careers of the scientists who made the big discoveries in modern disease prevention, and a little Biology 101 about viruses and bacteria for the layman, too.

Born in rural Montana, Hilleman spent his childhood working the family farm and chafing under his father's strict religious fundamentalism. Finding solace in science, and, in particular, Darwin's Origin of the Species, Hilleman left the farm for the University of Chicago, and from there he bucked tradition, choosing to work for pharmaceutical giant Merck rather than a career in academia.

Given a fairly free rein at the company, Hilleman was able to research and develop 9 life saving vaccines that benefit the world over, eradicating many diseases completely in some areas and drastically cutting down on premature deaths and disease induced birth defects.

Offit takes a short detour to explain the nature of viruses, and their discovery and the scientists who studied them, as well as how vaccines are created so Hilleman's work could better be understood by people who only went to Biology 101 four times the entire semester.

Now, either you like biology nerd stuff or you don't. I do, so I found Offit's book very interesting and cornered coworkers with talk of the severed heads of chicken embryos and such. If science isn't your bag, or you oppose vaccinations for for religious or hippie reasons, this is not the book for you.

Offit isn't afraid to dive into the middle of the problems caused by religious fundamentalists, either, lamenting the religious right's constant stream of deception and misinformation regarding the vaccine for cervical cancer, and, most shockingly, opposition to the vaccination for rubella, a disease that causes severe birth defects, and, often infant and fetal death if a pregnant woman becomes infected.

Why? Because the vaccine was created back in 1962 using the cells of an aborted fetus. Offit tries very hard to maintain a neutral tone when rebutting the ignorance of a group so ridiculous in their willingness to kill millions of babies to avoid using cells from a single 45-year-old donated fetus that even the Vatican flatly told them their anti-abortion stance went too far. However, after explaining why all their ideas of how to create a vaccine using alternate methods would not be possible, he laments the group's spreading of misinformation:

It's unlikely that vaccine makers are going to remake routine children's vaccines - such as those for rubella, hepatitis A, and chickenpox - at great cost for no financial benefit. And inflammatory, incorrect statements regarding vaccines in current use don't help.


Unfortunately, the chapter on vaccines made from human blood has quite a large error of its own. While I'm confident Dr. Offit can be trusted with regard to the science part of the book, he is way off the mark on gay history.

In this chapter, of course the AIDS virus is covered. Offit writes about a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas.

The first forty people diagnosed in the United States with AIDS were gay men living in California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. To figure out how the AIDS virus...spread, investigators constructed a diagram showing who had had sex with whom. In the center of the diagram was one man. All forty AIDS victims had had sex with this man or with someone who had had sex with him. They called him Patient Zero...Dugas was 28 when a biopsy of an enlarging purple spot below his right ear revealed Kaposi's sarcoma - "gay cancer." At the time, Dugas estimated that he had slept with two hundred and fifty men a year for ten years - twenty-five hundred sexual partners in all. Knowing that AIDS was contagious didn't stop Dugas from continuing to satisfy his sexual appetites. "Rumors began on Castro Street about a strange guy at the Eighth and Howard bathhouse, a blond with a French accent,"noted [Randy] Shilts, [author of And the Band Played on] "He would have sex with you, turn up the lights in the cubicle, and point out his Kaposi's sarcoma lesions. 'I've got cancer,' he said. 'I'm going to die. [And now] so are you.'"

This was quite a sensational story. I did some Googling for "Gaetan Dugas," curious about the person who went down in history as the biggest disease-carrying whore the world has ever known.

Turns out this story? Not true.

Much was made in the early years of the epidemic of a so-called 'Patient Zero' who was the basis of a complex "transmission scenario" compiled by Dr. William Darrow and colleagues at the Centre for Disease Control in the US. This epidemiological study showed how 'Patient O' (mistakenly identified in the press as 'Patient Zero') had given HIV to multiple partners, who then in turn transmitted it to others and rapidly spread the virus to locations all over the world. A journalist, Randy Shilts, subsequently wrote an book based on Darrow's findings, which named Patient Zero as a gay Canadian flight attendant called Gaetan Dugas. For several years, Dugas was vilified as a 'mass spreader' of HIV and the original source of the HIV epidemic among gay men. However, four years after the publication of Shilts' article, Dr. Darrow repudiated his study, admitting its methods were flawed and that Shilts' had misrepresented its conclusions.

While Gaetan Dugas was a real person who did eventually die of AIDS, the Patient Zero story was not much more than myth and scaremongering. HIV in the US was to a large degree initially spread by gay men, but this occurred on a huge scale over many years, probably a long time before Dugas even began to travel.

This is a substantial error, not to mention unfair to Dugas' family to continue to vilify him based on what is mostly scaremongering and myth, and I hope that in subsequent publishings this misinformation is removed.

If this small section is corrected, I would whole-heartedly recommend Vaccinated. Until it is, though, wait for the paperback.

by Paul A. Offit, MD
June 2007 by Harper Collins
Hardcover, 272pp
ISBN: 978-0-06-122795-0

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