Summary and book reviews of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman

The Vaccine Race

Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

by Meredith Wadman

The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman
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  • Published:
    Feb 2017, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Zoë Fairtlough

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Book Summary

The epic and controversial story of a major breakthrough in cell biology that led to the conquest of rubella and other devastating diseases.

Until the late 1960s, tens of thousands of American children suffered crippling birth defects if their mothers had been exposed to rubella, popularly known as German measles, while pregnant; there was no vaccine and little understanding of how the disease devastated fetuses. In June 1962, a young biologist in Philadelphia, using tissue extracted from an aborted fetus from Sweden, produced safe, clean cells that allowed the creation of vaccines against rubella and other common childhood diseases. Two years later, in the midst of a devastating German measles epidemic, his colleague developed the vaccine that would one day wipe out homegrown rubella. The rubella vaccine and others made with those fetal cells have protected more than 150 million people in the United States, the vast majority of them preschoolers. The new cells and the method of making them also led to vaccines that have protected billions of people around the world from polio, rabies, chicken pox, measles, hepatitis A, shingles and adenovirus.

Meredith Wadman's masterful account recovers not only the science of this urgent race, but also the political roadblocks that nearly stopped the scientists. She describes the terrible dilemmas of pregnant women exposed to German measles and recounts testing on infants, prisoners, orphans, and the intellectually disabled, which was common in the era. These events take place at the dawn of the battle over using human fetal tissue in research, during the arrival of big commerce in campus labs, and as huge changes take place in the laws and practices governing who "owns" research cells and the profits made from biological inventions. It is also the story of yet one more unrecognized woman whose cells have been used to save countless lives.

With another frightening virus imperiling pregnant women on the rise today, no medical story could have more human drama, impact, or urgency today than The Vaccine Race.

Prologue

The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great.
—Louis Pasteur, nineteenth century French microbiologist

On October 9, 1964, a baby girl was born at Philadelphia General Hospital. She arrived early, when her mother was about thirty two weeks pregnant. The baby weighed 3.2 pounds and was noted to be blue, floppy, and not breathing. The only sign of life was her slow heartbeat. Nonetheless, she clung to life, and her seventeen year old mother named her.

One month later the baby was still in the hospital, and a doctor leaning close with a stethoscope heard a harsh heart murmur. A chest X ray showed that she had a massively enlarged heart because a hole in the muscular organ was preventing it from pumping blood efficiently. Doctors also noticed that the baby was staring into space, not fixing her gaze on anything. An ophthalmologist was called in. It emerged that the baby had cataracts blinding both eyes. Later other signs indicated that she was profoundly ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Wadman's journalistic experience is evident. She has written for Science, Nature, The New York Times and The Washington Post for years. In The Vaccine Race, Wadman expertly corrals the hordes of details, and packages them in a way that is not only understandable but also allows us to appreciate the political context that resulted in particular decisions and outcomes.   (Reviewed by Zoë Fairtlough).

Full Review Members Only (939 words).

Media Reviews

Library Journal

Highly recommended for readers who enjoy medical breakthrough stories such as Thomas Hager's The Demon Under the Microscope and studies of medical research ethics, including Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This is an exemplary piece of medical journalism, and Wadman makes strikingly clear the human costs of medical developments as well as the roles of politics and economics

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. An important story well told, featuring the drama and characters needed to make this a candidate for film adaptation.

Author Blurb John M. Barry, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Influenza


This is a story about the war against disease - a war without end - and the development of enormously important vaccines, but in telling that story, in showing how science works, Meredith Wadman reveals much more. I loved this book.

Author Blurb Paul A. Offit, MD, author of Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong and Autism's False Prophets
Meredith Wadman rolls up her sleeves and takes an uncompromising look at the sometimes unethical, often crude, and always rough-and-tumble world of one of the greatest success stories in public health: vaccines. What she finds will no doubt surprise you.

Author Blurb Henry T. Greely, Director of Stanford's Center for Law and the Biosciences and  author of The End of Sex
A gripping story with strong resonance in the age of Zika and Ebola - and a powerful reminder of the ways in which researchers approached the ethics of medical testing only fifty years ago.

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Beyond the Book

The Benefits of Vaccines

A young boy receiving oral polio vaccine in India Vaccines are responsible for the global eradication of smallpox, rinderpest, and soon, it is hoped, polio and measles. Despite the backlash against vaccines, which has caused the occasional reemergence of German measles and chickenpox, new scientific advances promise to tackle scourges like malaria, HIV and cancers.

The World Health Organization highlights other notable effects:

Protection against related diseases: The measles vaccination, for example, can protect against dysentery, bacterial pneumonia, keratomalacia and malnutrition.

Cancer prevention: The Human Papilloma Virus vaccination is expected to substantially reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. (See 'Beyond the Book' for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for ...

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