A brief history of vaccine screw-ups

I’ve made a minor hobby of looking skeptically at immunizations since my case report on atypical measles was published as the centerpiece article in JAMA 45 years ago. That case illustrated at least one unpublicized problem from immunizations.

It seems that the original measles vaccine, “a killed measles vaccine” was given to preschool kids beginning in 1962-63 and available until 1968.  It did prevent measles for about six years. Thereafter, when these kids were exposed to measles they sometimes developed an inverted and much more serious illness. My case was the first that occurred in a young adult 14 years after immunization. The current live virus vaccine is somewhat less likely to lead to atypical measles.

Among other immunization screwups I include Robert Koch’s attempts to immunize for tuberculosis which apparently caused a few deaths as reported in older literature. Before him, there was variolation, the inoculation of children with smallpox, which greatly diminished the number of serious cases but also led to about 1% developing smallpox and dying. Jenner used vaccinia, the cowpox virus which was safer but would occasionally cause progressive vaccinia and generalized disease in individuals with certain skin conditions.

The biggest problem occurred during WW II. All U.S. soldiers destined for the South Pacific got a yellow fever vaccine that was prepared and administered using pooled plasma harvested around NYC. Seven million doses were made. Lots were contaminated with Hep B and C and huge numbers of these soldiers were sickened. It may well explain how serum hepatitis was disseminated widely in America. These soldiers eventually became veterans who died thirty years later of cirrhosis that was falsely ascribed to their alcoholism. (We didn’t know about hepatitis B and C until later.)

The live polio vaccine type 2 would revert to the wild strain after a few cycles (it spread through communities) and these vaccines still cause serious neurologic complications if given to immunosuppressed individuals. 

The ascending paralysis of Gullian Barre Landry after the 1976 Swine Flu vaccine is well documented. 

I’m eligible for the vaccine but am not lining up for the “jab.” I regard the privileged and the grabby as guinea pigs on whom these makeshift COVID-19 vaccines can ethically be tested.

Erwin Haas MD MBA was an Infectious Diseases consultant, a flight surgeon in Vietnam and served as a city commissioner in Kentwood, Michigan.

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