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what the 1950s could teach us today

Dr. Rahul Gupta, Opinion contributor
Published 4:00 a.m. MT Oct. 9, 2020

Americans need to come together and go far in protecting our health and saving lives.

A vaccine might be able to stem the coronavirus, but it’s no match for our ailing body politic.

The United States is very likely speeding toward the approval and distribution of a vaccine that a sizable portion of the population will forgo. A new Pew Research Center survey reveals a 21 percentage point drop since May — from 72% to 51% — among adults who would get a COVID-19 vaccine today,with a decline “across all major political and demographic groups.” Unless we correct course, we’ll remain in the global basement of this pandemic even after a vaccine arrives, with spikes in cases and loss of life well into 2021 and beyond, regardless of who is president.

Learning from how the polio epidemic was handled

In normal times, the federal government — in coordination with state and local public health authorities — would be the trusted voice in planning, operationalizing and communicating to the public every stage of vaccine development and distribution. An in-charge Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be the hub of these efforts. But these are not normal times, and political hands continue to undermine the CDC and diminish its work and standing. That’s why we should borrow from the nation’s playbook response to the polio epidemic during the 1950s as a possible path forward. A credible, non-partisan and nationally renowned non-governmental organization — or a coalition of such organizations — should be enlisted now to engage in states and communities to help Operation Warp Speed (OWS) launch a COVID-19 vaccination campaign. This worked 65 years ago, and it could work today.

Polio was the coronavirus of the mid-20th century. Potentially fatal and disabling, this viral infection was transmitted person to person around the world and driven by asymptomatic carriers. Social distancing protocols were put in place each summer, and there was a run on iron lung machines, which were that period’s version of ventilators.  The race to develop a vaccine was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now March of Dimes), and it became one of the most rapid examples of bench‐to‐bedside translation in the history of medicine. March of Dimes organized the largest clinical trial in U.S. history, with 1.8 million children,  that was funded by the donations of a concerned nation — one dime at a time.

The vaccine effort was nearly derailed in 1955, when Cutter Laboratories in California produced some batches of the vaccine with a live virus, resulting in thousands of cases of paralytic polio and sending a new wave of fear across the nation. The incident undercut the trust in government at precisely the wrong time. The transparency, independence and trust of our “outside” organization helped the United States overcome the vaccine hesitancy that existed even then, and in the wake of the Cutter incident, so the scourge of polio could be stopped.

Dr. Richard J. Mulvaney gives injection to Randy Kerr, Polio Pioneer No. 1, on April 26, 1954, in McLean, Virginia. (Photo: March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation handout)

Today, as researchers across the globe race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, fear and uncertainty surround not only the virus but the vaccine to stop it. The scientific community broadly agrees that the deployment of a safe and efficacious vaccine across the United States will almost immediately interrupt disease transmission and lead to fewer cases, complications and deaths.  However, despite biotechnological advancements, a basic underlying human factor — vaccine hesitancy — might ultimately dictate the success or failure of any vaccine campaign. The highly unusual public assurances issued earlier this month by the pharmaceutical companies developing these vaccines tells us how dire the concern about trust is.

Harvard Medical deans: Push for COVID-19 vaccine must put health above politics

Vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccines, but what’s different today is the level of distrust in our government and institutions. Even before COVID-19 entered our vernacular, a Pew Research Center survey found that three-quarters of Americans said their trust in the federal government had been eroding. A majority reported trouble discerning what is true, given a growing distrust of both elected officials and the news media. Factor in the divisiveness of a presidential election year, and America finds itself in an unenviable and dangerous predicament.

Non-partisan actors need to be communicating with the public about the vaccine

President Trump has repeatedly said a vaccine will be available by November, no matter the protestations of scientists, including his own CDC director. It is likely that by late October, just before Election Day, congressional candidates will be forced to take a position on vaccinations — whether about effectiveness or mandatory inoculation. The vaccination effort may itself become a red or blue litmus test, just as the nation is experiencing with face coverings. When Americans already do not find their government trustworthy, any attempt by that same government to persuade the public of the safety and efficacy of a rapidly developed vaccine will be in vain.

This administration is not equipped to establish that trust, but history shows us a path forward. The role the March of Dimes played in eliminating polio in the U.S. and setting the stage for global eradication of the disease provides a sound model for what America needs today. The greatest public service the federal government could do now is to enlist a group of non-partisan truth-tellers outside of government to become the face of this vaccination effort. These experts would have the authority and unfettered access into OWS and the resources to communicate directly with the American public without government interference. Communities across the U.S. would begin to notice that information — both positive and negative — was being communicated without political influence. This type of straight-forward, timely information sharing on vaccines would allow Americans to begin once again to develop trust in the messages being communicated, and ultimately help them make more informed decisions.

COVID-19 vaccine: If Trump announces a preelection COVID vaccine, who’d believe him — or go and get one?

There’s an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This fall and into winter, Americans need to come together and go far in protecting our health and saving lives. However, we can only do so by ensuring that truth, transparency and trust are embedded in the nation’s vaccination campaign.

Dr. Rahul Gupta is the chief medical and health officer for the March of Dimes. He is the former public health commissioner for the state of West Virginia.

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