Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The immortal Henrietta Lacks and the Covid vaccine

Credit: Keith Henry Brown. Henrietta Lacks, the "Mother of Modern Medicine," made a vital contribution to the Covid-19 vaccines, 70 years after her death.

At this time of year when we honor the memory of George Floyd and repairing racial injustice, we must not forget the story of Henrietta Lacks. She is called the "Mother of Modern Medicine" for good reason. Her cells, used in research around the world, on many projects, played a significant role in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, as they did for the development of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk.

Remarkably, 70 years after her death from cervical cancer, Henrietta Lacks' cells live on, allowing for lower research cost and for researchers scientists to avoid testing on human subjects.

Correcting a longstanding injustice

Henrietta Lacks' contributions in the form of her immortal cells have finally been recognized by the biomedical community. Johns Hopkins University, where she was treated for cervical cancer, the National Institutes of Health, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and other individuals have made reparations to the family in terms of cash payments from the results of experiments on her cells. 

A Henrietta Lacks Foundation, seats on the board that decides how her cells will be used, and symposiums and scholarships in her name all honor Henrietta Lacks and have begun to correct the ethically wrong use of her cells, which was begun without her consent. 

Read more about this important, remarkable story. And it is hoped that some will get the vaccine which, incredibly, she helped make possible decades after her death.

Learn more about Henrietta Lacks, the vaccine, Covid-19 and public health in this new book:

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Is your state getting vaccinated?


Find out where your state ranks in vaccine rates.

This week, CNN ranked the states by order of percentage of residents who have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose.

The numbers can be looked at in several ways, but they are falling short, in some states very short, of the goals for herd immunity, i.e., community immunity. President Biden has set a goal to have 70% of Americans with at least one vaccine dose by early July. 

We need to pull together in this effort, to encourage people to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and then even to get angry that people are ignoring the science and risking the health of their neighbors, friends, and families. 

Get more information for yourself by ordering a copy of the book listed below. 

Here are the states and their vaccination rates as of May 19th.

  1. Maine 50.12% 
  2. Connecticut 49.29% 
  3. Vermont 48.39% 
  4. Rhode Island 47.97% 
  5. Massachusetts 47.68% 
  6. New Jersey 45.16% 
  7. New Mexico 44.92% 
  8. Hawaii 44.68% 
  9. Maryland 43.66% 
  10. New York 43.44% 
  11. Minnesota 42.41%, 
  12. Wisconsin 42.05% 
  13. Colorado 41.94% 
  14. District of Columbia 41.54% 
  15. Virginia 41.32% 
  16. Washington 41.28% 
  17. South Dakota 41.25% 
  18. Iowa 41.22% 
  19. Pennsylvania 40.11% 
  20. Nebraska 39.98% 
  21. Oregon 39.98% 
  22. Delaware 39.81% 
  23. California 39.33%, 
  24. Michigan 39.25% 
  25. Maryland 38.90%
  26. Ohio 38.14% 
  27. Alaska 38.04% 
  28. New Hampshire 37.93%
  29. Illinois 37.11% 
  30. Kansas 36.71%
  31. Kentucky 36.56% 
  32. Montana 36.55% 
  33. Florida 36.15% 
  34. North Dakota 35.33% 
  35. North Carolina 34.42% 
  36. Nevada 34.25% 
  37. Texas 33.06% 
  38. West Virginia 33.02%
  39. Indiana 32.99% 
  40. Missouri 32.83% 
  41. Oklahoma 32.58% 
  42. South Carolina 31.97%  
  43. Idaho 31.16% 
  44. Wyoming 30.6% 
  45. Utah 30.22% 
  46. Tennessee 30.17% 
  47. Louisiana 29.88% 
  48. Georgia 29.53% 
  49. Arkansas 29.5% 
  50. Alabama 27.79% 
  51. Mississippi 26.24%

Learn more about the vaccine, about Covid-19 and about public health in this new book:

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Vax-a-million Lottery offers $1 million

Ohio residents can get a vaccine and a special Lottery ticket.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine gets credit for creativity, if nothing else. Using Covid relief money from the federal government, the governor and his administration set up the nation's first lottery to to lure vaccine reluctant Ohioans to get jabbed.

Vaccine rates for Ohio citizens over the age of 18, which had slowed, are now on the increase. And this special lottery, offering five prizes of a million dollars each, is open solely to the newly vaccinated. The first drawing will be held on May 26th. Winners will be announced weekly until June 23rd.

Officials can't officially confirm that the lottery caused the increase, but first indications are that the idea is the driving force behind increased vaccination rates.

But this isn't the only incentive states are offering. In New Jersey, residents 21 and over can get a free beer after their first vaccination. In Alabama, residents who received a vaccine or a Covid-19 test were able to take a free drive on the famed Talladega speedway last weekend. 

Residents of Maine, who got their first dose of the vaccine before the end of May, can get complimentary fishing or hunting licenses or day passes to State Parks.

Learn more about the vaccine, about Covid-19 and about public health in this new book:

Monday, May 17, 2021

Now the road to community immunity begins

Full community immunity may rely on outreach.

The first 90 million Americans to get vaccinated may be the easy part. Now begins the long road to reach 75%, at which herd immunity (I like the term community immunity much better) can be reached. But now it turns out according to a study from Brown University that the problem may not be hardened hearts but lack of information about where to get vaccinated and how and by whom.

In other words, don't overthink things.

Stefanie Friedhoff is a professor of the practice in health services, policy, and practice as well as strategy director at Brown University School of Public Health.

She writes in her blog:

"I lead a team at Brown University School of Public Health that is undertaking new research in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and community organizations across the U.S. to understand people’s experiences regarding vaccination, public health, and the health care system more generally, rather than just their intentions about this specific vaccine. What we have learned so far from this survey, fielded by HIT Strategies in communities of color in five U.S. cities, is telling: Even though a majority of Black and Latino Americans want to get vaccinated — 72% in this survey — a surprising 63% said they didn’t have enough information about where to get the shot. In addition, more than 20% said they had regularly been treated with disrespect when getting health care in the past, and 20% said they have had trouble finding health care when needed.

"Despite these systemic barriers, only 3% of the total sample said that nothing at all would move them to get the Covid-19 vaccine.

"Everyone else, even those who said 'no' to getting a vaccine now, listed reasons that would motivate them to get a shot, such as 'seeing a person I trust get the vaccine' or having 'a vaccination site close to my home.'

"In fact, 'having more information' is the single most important concern expressed by those unsure about the Covid-19 vaccine, according to almost every poll that asks this question. This is true across the political spectrum. Blaming conservative Americans for taking their time or for believing lies, and labeling them as hesitant or resisters only hardens their viewpoints. Instead, the public health community needs to come to grips with what motivates people, and also with the harmful impact of misinformation on Americans who do not have access to quality information.

"It’s still a long road to getting most Americans vaccinated against Covid-19. It can be shortened by worrying less about today’s confidence polls and more about persistent barriers to vaccination. The health and public health communities need to continue the hard work of making vaccines ubiquitous and available without complex sign-up procedures — at churches, grocery stores, barber shops, food pantries, and yes, even in bars and restaurants.

"People’s questions must be answered and false narratives preempted by flooding online and offline spaces with high-quality information in the languages people speak on the platforms they frequent. Concerted effort is needed to expose misinformation tactics and how they are unleashed to generate confusion, as well as to regulate the platforms that empower them.

"For most Americans — and that includes conservatives — who are given the chance to discuss vaccination on their own terms and timelines and for whom vaccination is easy, nearby, and supported by employers, the question shifts from if they will get vaccinated to when and how."

Learn more about the vaccine, about Covid-19 and about public health in this new book:

Friday, May 14, 2021

52 years later: Separate and unequal, still

President Lyndon Johnson, center, organized the Kerner Commission in 1968. It concluded that America contained two societies, one White, one Black, separate and unequal.

Two friends, both Black, informed me that they will not be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (Full disclosure: I did share my book with both.) I was angry and then sad, not just that I couldn't persuade them but how deep seated their animosity was toward getting vaccinated.

After a day I've realized there's no use in continuing a conversation. They've made up their minds and their decisions and the reasons for them are far beyond a book about a vaccine.

Their decisions brought me back to when I studied the Kerner Commission, which was created by President Johnson following inner-city protests in 1967 in Newark, New Jersey, Detroit and more than 25 other cities across America. The Kerner Commission's findings were stunning and went where no other such panel had gone before, using social science research that had been ignored.

The commission concluded, 52 years ago, that America was split into two societies, one Black, one White, separate and unequal, and steadily moving apart. Johnson's appointees got it right. For the first time an official panel looked at factors such as the police, institutional racism, and lack of opportunity among black Americans. 

But nothing has substantially changed.

So when one of my black friends said that she did not trust "white medicine," there really was nothing for me to say. All I had to think about was that Black woman doctor who documented by video her treatment as she lay in a hospital bed fighting COVID-19. She was ignored, her pain was denied, and her treatments were delayed. And she knew the protocols and how she was being denied them. Shortly after her last video, this doctor died.

So my optimism in the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 that are saving lives and will end this pandemic is tamped down today by the realization that this society is deeply divided and that African-Americans feel woefully unequal and distrustful of a system they view as other.

But I'm grateful to my friends for at least reading my book. Perhaps progress will come, just at glacial speed. I did not know how badly they feel.

Now I do.

Learn more about the vaccine, about Covid-19 and about public health in this new book:

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The road from Chicago to food and drug safety

In 1906, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, shocked Americans about a dangerous lack of food safety.

Mary had a Little Lamb

And when it began to sicken,

She sent it to Chicago

Where now it's a can of chicken.

--Satirist on The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Supposedly over dinner one night in the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt was glancing through an advanced copy of The Jungle, the muckraking novel of scurrilous practices by the nation's meat producers. 

Dead rats, Sinclair wrote, were winding up in hot dogs, for example.

Roosevelt dropped his fork and exclaimed, "I'm pizzened!" 

In short order in 1906, Roosevelt pushed for and passed a meat inspection law and the Pure Food and Drug Law.

These acts led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, which conducts rigorous tests and enforces strict protocols on products introduced to Americans via processed foods, new drugs, and new medical procedures. 

The Covid-19 vaccines had to pass rigorous tests involving hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The testing is arduous and conducted with strict safety in mind. 

Learn more about the vaccine, about Covid-19 and about public health in this new book:

Monday, May 10, 2021

Distillery milk and Covid vaccine safety

Distillery milk, or swillmilk, poisoned and killed New York City children in the late 1800s. This and other scams led to today's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to protect American health.

Among the many reasons I've found for vaccine hesitancy, probably the most common one is whether it's safe. How can a vaccine, people ask, be developed so quickly? They must have taken shortcuts. 

Well the "they" in this instance is the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, which we hear talked about so often when news of the vaccine and its development and implementation is given over TV, the Internet, radio, etc. Now the FDA is more than 100 years old and has a very interesting history in protecting the health of Americans from new drugs, new food additives, or any medical device and procedure that is made available to the general public. 

In the late 1800s health standards were so low or non-existent that there existed a dangerous type of milk, more poison than food, that was delivered to children of New York City.

Devious dairy farmers and makers of grain alcohol combined to produce a concoction known as distillery milk. The scheme work this way: after grain alcohol was produced, there remained a weak yet slightly nutritious type of mash. The unscrupulous businessmen thought that this gruel could be given to dairy cows, which were producing milk in the borough of Brooklyn... remember this was the late 1800s.

The distillery owners and the dairy farmers got together, literally moving their plants next to each other to save every penny for their scam. The barely nutritious mash left over from the alcohol production was sent next door to the dairy cows. There the emaciated cows produced thin, blue colored milk, almost completely lacking in nutrition. 

To fix the color, the dairies added chalk. To thicken it, they added Plaster of Paris. Thus was born "distillery milk," also know as "swillmilk."

Children around New York City, particularly in Manhattan, were given this poison in schools, got sick, and died. An investigation by the private New York Academy of Sciences unveiled the scheme, and it was eventually stopped. 

So bad was the need for regulation that the federal Department of Agriculture began an investigation and by 1906, with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Pure Food and Drug law was enacted. With that law came the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.

So while nothing is certain in this world, the presence and the rigorous testing and precautions of the FDA give us a sense of safety and security. Clinical trials are the gold standard for drugs. foods, and any medical devices or procedures. The Covid vaccines underwent rigorous four-step clinical trials, that were only speeded up by the vaccine makers who took the gamble that they could conduct several of these steps, at their own financial risk, at the same time. So sure were they that the vaccines would prove safe and effective that manufacturing actually began before the vaccines had received complete approval. The vaccines however could not be released to the public until that approval was granted by the food and drug administration.