The true story of a cancer-causing monkey virus, contaminated polio vaccine, and the millions of Americans exposed
Past tragedies caused by “miracle drugs” have taught the public to approach cures with caution, and vaccines, in particular, have come under public scrutiny. In The Virus and the Vaccine, journalists Debbie Bookchin and Jim Schumacher uncover the true tale of the polio vaccine and its past and present dangers. Like many medical detective stories before it, this book starts with a chilling anecdote, then flashes back to slowly set the stage for disaster. Baby boomers who only know Jonas Salk and his virus-fighting colleagues as heroes will be disturbed at how some of them downplayed concerns about a monkey virus called SV40 that was present in the polio vaccine. The links between SV40 and human cancer took a long time to define, and breakthroughs in molecular biology made the job more realistic in later decades. Nevertheless, Bookchin and Schumacher argue that a biased scientific bureaucracy in combination with a desperate public and money-hungry pharmaceutical! companies fostered the use of a vaccine that may have increased cancer risk. “The vast majority of baby boomers–almost all of whom received polio vaccine in the late 1950s and early 1960s–have potentially been exposed to the virus,” they write. But baby boomers aren’t the only ones at risk. The authors reveal that Lederle Laboratories continued to produce potentially contaminated oral polio vaccines well into the 1990s. Although the authors point fingers of blame at some specific targets, they carefully balance their accusations with reminders that public demands for cures must be balanced with careful assessment of new medical treatments. –Therese Littleton
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