Salk, Sabin and my mother

Posted on 10 Sep 2009 at 1:26pm
By David Taffett Staff Writer

Adult vaccination could save an additional 50,000 lives a year and there are particular health concerns in the LGBT community. An interesting note in the history of immunization is that the Hepatitis B vaccine was created from blood from infected gay men.

But I wanted to initiate the new Dallas Voice Health section with a piece on adult vaccination to remember my mother.

My mother was a bacteriologist at Columbia University throughout the 1940s and early ’50s. She worked on ways to produce penicillin in greater quantities, a cure for tuberculosis and a polio vaccine.

Although penicillin was discovered in 1928, scientists had not found a way to commercially produce the drug. During World War II, they discovered the chemical structure of the compound and found ways to grow more effective cultures. Thanks to work in my mother’s lab and others, by the end of the war, penicillin was saving thousands of lives.

Because of my mother’s research with the bacteria that causes TB, she apparently developed immunity to the disease, which she passed on to me. When I was in public school, we were tested regularly for TB. The pinprick test was looking for antibodies, which indicated exposure to the disease. Each year, I had to get a letter explaining my mother’s exposure and assure the school that I was healthy and probably immune to the disease, rather than exposed to it and needing to be locked in a sanitarium. We simply had the antibodies to it because of her years of lab work.

A third major project her lab worked on was the search for a polio vaccine.

At the time, bacteriology was not a graduate level program. Most of the job was learned in the lab through hands-on experience. Jonas Salk was a young intern (my mother always described him as "that snotty young intern") who came into her lab to learn bacteriology and became her lab assistant.

While the first polio vaccine, which came out in 1955, is credited to Salk, my mother said work had been proceeding on it for years before he came to the lab. His vaccine was the result of the work of hundreds of bacteriologists.

The Salk vaccine prevented the complications of polio, but not the initial infection in the intestines. People protected by the Salk vaccine could still pass along the disease.

In 1960, Dr. Albert Sabin’s oral polio vaccine was released. The Sabin vaccine provided lifetime protection. (Probably an after-age-50 booster would be recommended had the disease not been virtually eradicated in the western hemisphere). The Salk required regular booster shots. The Sabin not only prevented the complications of polio but also blocked initial infection. And Sabin’s oral administration made it easier to provide the vaccine in many places around the world.

The day the Sabin vaccine was released in the United States in 1960, my mother brought me to our pediatrician to be protected by Dr. Sabin’s new oral vaccine. While its safety had been documented, the effectiveness of the new vaccine had not been completely established, although testing had been ongoing overseas since 1954. But my mother said Dr. Sabin always credited everyone on his team and she just trusted him more than "that snotty young intern."

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