Tag Archives: Saving lives

Appreciating Dr. Maurice Hilleman: The Man Who Saved Millions Of Lives (With Vaccines)

As someone who regularly consumes superhero media of all kinds, I try to appreciate the real heroes in the real world who regularly save countless lives. Most carry themselves without superpowers, flashy costumes, or charisma on par with Robert Downy Jr. or Christopher Reeves. They just do the work that needs doing to help people who will never know their name.

A couple years ago, I made a tribute to Dr. Norman Borlaug, the famed agricultural scientist who helped usher in an agricultural revolution. This man, who most have never heard of, has saved millions of lives by helping the world produce more food, reduce famine, and combat world hunger. The amount of good this man has done for the world cannot be overstated.

In that same spirit, I’d like to highlight another individual who I doubt most people have heard of. He’s another doctor who, through his work, has helped save millions of lives, many of them children. It’s because of this man that millions of children born today don’t become ill with diseases that had ravaged humanity for generations.

That man is Dr. Maurice Hilleman. While his notoriety is not on the same level as Dr. Borlaug, I have a feeling his profile will rise considerably after the events of 2020. That’s because Dr. Hilleman currently holds the record for developing the most vaccines of any doctor in history.

In total, he helped develop more than 40.

Of those vaccines, 8 are still routinely recommended by doctors today. They combat terrible diseases like measles, mumps, Hepatitis, and chicken pox.

It’s a level of productivity that is unparalleled today. As a result of these vaccines, approximately 8 million lives are saved every year. Even though he died in 2005, he continues to save lives with each passing year through his work. Like Dr. Borlaug, his heroism only compounds with time. Even Tony Stark can’t boast that.

Most people alive today don’t realize just how bad it was before these vaccines were developed. Many diseases, some of which you’ve probably never heard of, were rampant. Before Dr. Hilleman helped develop the vaccine, measles alone infected between 3 and 4 million people every year in the United states, killing at between 400 and 500 at a time.

Children and the elderly were especially vulnerable. It was once just a fact of life that these diseases would come around and kill a sizable number of children. It was as unavoidable as bad weather.

Take a moment to imagine life in those conditions. One day, you or your children would just get sick and there was nothing you could do to prevent it. That was life before these remarkable advances came along.

That’s why when people say that nothing has saved more lives than vaccines, they’re not peddling propaganda. They’re just sharing the results of basic math. It’s because of men like Dr. Maurice Hilleman that these numbers are what they are. However, his name is not well-known, even in a field that has become more prominent.

Most people know who Edward Jenner is and appreciate how many lives he saved by combating Smallpox.

Most people know who Jonas Salk is and appreciate how many people he helped by developing a polio vaccine.

Now, what these men did was remarkable. They certainly deserve the praise and admiration they receive for developing their respective vaccines. However, Dr. Maurice Hilleman still deserves to be in that same echelon. For the number of vaccines he helped develop and the legacy he left, he certainly put in the work and accomplished a great deal.

The diseases Dr. Hilleman battled might not have been as high-profile as Smallpox or polio, but they were every bit as damaging. That makes it all the more frustrating to see efforts like the anti-vaxx movement take hold, which has led to resurgences of diseases like measles in certain communities. That is not the direction we should be going right now.

In the midst of a historic pandemic, the importance of medical science and those who work in it has never been more critical. This might be the best possible time to acknowledge the work of men like Dr. Hilleman. Even after this pandemic has passed, we should all appreciate work like his even more.

None of us have superpowers like Spider-Man or Superman.

Most of us will never be as rich, smart, or resourceful as Iron Man or Batman.

Dr. Hilleman had none of this. Just like Dr. Borlaug, he came from a poor family. At one point, he didn’t have enough money for college. He still persevered and he still managed to do the work that went onto save millions of lives. It might not be a hero’s story on par with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s still a special kind of heroism.

So, on this day as we anxiously wait for this pandemic to end, take a moment to appreciate the work of Dr. Maurice Hilleman. It’s because of him that such pandemics are so rare. It’s also because of him that this current pandemic won’t take nearly as many lives as it could’ve.

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Filed under biotechnology, Current Events, health, technology

A (Hopeful) Perspective On The Coronavirus

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As a general rule, I always watch the news with a skeptical eye. That’s not just because we live in an era of fake news, misguided outrage, and conspiracy theories about shape-shifting lizard people. I’ve learned from time, experience, and observation that the news can only ever tell part of a story as it’s happening. The full story never comes out until much later. Sometimes, it’s years later.

That’s not easy when following stories like the coronavirus. Unlike other major news stories that make headlines for all the wrong reasons, this is a serious issue. This is something the public needs to know about. The coronavirus is not just a nasty cold. It’s killing people all over the world. That’s an indisputable fact and one that warrants serious concern.

At the same time, there’s a context worth noting. As bad as the coronavirus is, it’s not the second coming of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. This is not the kind of disease that will turn the planet into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the mold of a Stephen King novel. It’s still serious, but it’s not a global cataclysm. Even if it ends up killing millions, there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet.

Human beings adapt.

Human beings survive.

It’s one of the few things we’re good at.

There’s another perspective worth considering when following the news of the coronavirus. Unlike the devastating plagues of the past, humanity has developed a decent infrastructure for medicine, technology, and research. Granted, it took us centuries of trial, error, and mass death and there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that system is there. It’s better than nothing. Just ask Medieval Europe.

That system is already doing its job in combating the virus. Already, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have mapped out critical portions of the virus. That sort of thing couldn’t have been done this quickly or at all just 30 years ago. This data is critical for the development of treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The fact that this happened so quickly after the outbreak is something the news hasn’t reported on. Even if treatments develop and the virus is contained, as we’ve seen with other recent outbreaks, it probably won’t be a huge story within the ever-changing news cycle.

We know this because in late 2019, the first vaccine for Ebola was approved for use by the FDA and it barely showed up in the headlines. Considering how much panic the Ebola outbreak caused several years ago, this is quite a triumph. It shows just how quickly our current system can respond to these diseases.

Again, there’s still room for improvement and accessibility to medicine is a major issue, but the coronavirus is not some new form of disease. It’s a virus. We know what viruses are. We have the technology to study, treat, and combat them, more so than we have at any point in human history. Considering how much better we’ve gotten since the heyday of the AIDS pandemic, I say that’s reason to be hopeful.

That doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. When the CDC issues a warning about the coronavirus, we should take it seriously. At the same time, we should take comfort in the knowledge that we live in an era where human ingenuity has limited the suffering caused by these devastating plagues.

As with Ebola, we will eventually develop a treatment for the coronavirus. It won’t be perfect, but it will limit the death and suffering it causes. It also won’t make the news because it’s just not scary or dire enough. At this point, finding effective treatments for diseases is so mundane it barely qualifies as news. That’s an objectively good thing.

I hope that helps provide a bit of context and hope to the news surrounding the coronavirus. It’s still worth taking seriously, but we shouldn’t let grim headlines distract us from the great things that humanity achieves when faced with a challenge.

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Filed under biotechnology, Current Events, technology, Uplifting Stories

An Uplifting Story About A Man Who Saved Thousands Of Jews From The Holocaust (In Defiance Of Orders)

If you watch the news or follow social media in any capacity, it’s easy to think that the world is going to Hell and we’re all just waiting for our turn to get burned. It’s not hard to find a terrible news story that seriously dents your faith in humanity. Sometimes, it’s not even headline news. There are plenty of stories of people just being assholes.

As I’ve noted before, these types of stories can skew your perspective. In the grand scheme of things, the world is getting better. You don’t have to look that hard for evidence of that, either. The problem is few people bother looking.

To help with that, I’d like to share a brief, but uplifting story from one of history’s darkest time periods. It occurred in the early years of World War II, just as some of the worst atrocities in human history were starting to unfold. In such a time, it’s easy to see the worst in people come out.

At the same time, it can also bring out the best in people. One of those people was a man named Chiune Sugihara. Chances are you haven’t heard of him and that’s a shame because what he did was incredible. At a time when thousands of Jews were fleeing Germany and seeking refuge, Chiune used his position as a vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania to issue visas to refugees.

On top of that, he did this in defiance of orders from the Japanese government. He broke rules and protocol to help thousands of desperate families escape Europe. He was even punished for it after the war. Even so, there are thousands of people alive today because of what he did.

His story is remarkable and one I encourage everyone to learn about. The Holocaust Museum has a nice summation of his actions, but there are so many more. Here is a small excerpt.

Following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 hundreds of thousands of Jews and other Polish citizens fled eastward ahead of the advancing German army; many refugees found at least temporary safety in Lithuania. Options for escape were limited and required diplomatic visas to cross international borders. One route was through Asia using a combination of permits issued by foreign envoys responding to the refugee crisis: a bogus visa for entrance to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao and a visa for transit through Japan.

One such diplomat was Japanese Imperial Consul Chiune Sugihara, the first Japanese diplomat posted in Lithuania. In the absence of clear instructions from his government in Tokyo, Sugihara granted 10-day visas to Japan to hundreds of refugees who held Curaçao destination visas. After issuing some 1800 visas, Sugihara finally received a response to his cables alerting the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo of the situation in Lithuania. The Foreign Ministry reported that individuals with visas headed for the United States and Canada had arrived in Japan without money or final destination visas. In his response, Sugihara admitted to issuing visas to people who had not completed all arrangements for destination visas explaining that Japan was the only transit country available for going in the direction of the United States, and his visas were needed to leave the Soviet Union. By the time the Soviets ordered all diplomatic consulates closed, in late August 1940, Sugihara had saved thousands of Jews over the course of just a few weeks. Because of his efforts, Yad Vashem awarded him the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1984.

The story of Chiune Sugihara may not completely restore your faith in humanity, but it should serve as a strong reminder. Even in our darkest hours, people can still do great things for the right reasons.

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Filed under Uplifting Stories