Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review: Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases by Paul Offit

I guess my love of reading medical non-fiction is showing, yes? I saw this book when I was looking for pictures of Paul Offit's other book for that review, and decided to pick up a copy at the library.

I'd never heard of Maurice Hilleman before reading this book, which is sort of odd given the huge contributions he made to medicine. He was instrumental in the development of a number of vaccines in addition to revolutionizing the way in which they were synthesized. That's no mean feat for someone who came from rural, Lutheran Montana! In addition to saving the lives and health of millions of children, Hilleman also saved a number of chickens! Since many vaccines are synthesized in eggs and, at the time, many chickens were afflicted by a contagious, cancer-causing virus (and it was unclear whether that virus could cause diseases in humans), Hilleman resolved the issue by developing a vaccine for the chickens. Nifty, huh?

Offit does an excellent job detailing the facts of Hilleman's life (the culture he used for his mumps vaccine came from his daughter!) as well as explaining the medical and scientific aspects of his work in an easy-to-understand fashion. I only have one quibble with his presentation of the issues involved: early on, many vaccines were tested on institutionalized children who suffered from any combination of mental retardation, mental illness, and various physical conditions. While Offit acknowledges that such experimentation would be considered unethical (and would be illegal) today, he noted that, at that point in time, such children were at the greatest risk for developing infectious diseases and (for the most part) the consent of their parents was obtained. While the realities of the institutions were pretty terrible, I'm not convinced that they justified experimentation on their inhabitants, especially since modern clinical trial guidelines didn't exist. It sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Very informative and well-written. I could have done with a more in-depth discussion of the ethical issues involving using marginalized individuals as human guinea pigs, though.  3.5 out of 5 stars. 

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