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Scientists or Celebrities?


Washington, DC

Question: have you ever heard of Maurice Hilleman? If your answer is No or Who?, join about 99 percent of the American people. He passed away this month in Philadelphia at the age of 85. Here is what the front page New York Times article said about his medical career:

Dr. Maurice R. Hilleman developed vaccines for mumps, measles, chickenpox, pneumonia, meningitis and other diseases, saving tens of millions of lives. Much of modern preventive medicine is based on Dr. Hilleman’s work, though he never received the public recognition of Salk, Sabin or Pasteur. He is credited with having developed more human and animal vaccines than any other scientist, helping to extend human life expectancy and improving the economies of many countries.

The Times quotes Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health as saying: “The scientific quality and quantity of what he did was amazing. One can say without hyperbole that Maurice changed the world with his extraordinary contributions in so many disciplines: virology, epidemiology, immunology, cancer research and vaccinology.”

His associates, whom he regularly credited for their contributions, marveled at his artistry in safely producing large quantities of weakened live or dead micro-organisms. Dr. Hilleman credited his skills wryly to growing up on a farm in Montana where he worked as a boy with chickens. Chicken eggs are the fertilizing sites for many vaccines.

There are many fascinating stories about this scientist. Yet almost no one knew about him, saw him on television, or read about him in newspapers or magazines. His anonymity, in comparison with Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jose Canseco, or an assortment of grade B actors, tells something about our society’s and media’s concepts of celebrity; much less of the heroic. This is not a frivolous observation.

Bringing the work of individuals who matter to so many people on the important issues of lives and livelihoods is a prime way of educating the citizenry about important matters. Media trumpeting of Madonna’s latest escapades alerts and motivates the public quite differently than highlighting the frequent breakthroughs of a scientist like Dr. Hilleman. The former sells records and pulp magazines, the latter keeps the American people more knowledgeable about the critical perils that confront them if recognition and resources are not dedicated to their prevention.

Today, in America, there are tens of billions of dollars being spent and misspent on the struggle against stateless terrorists. Despite being warned repeatedly by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, the Bush Administration is reacting feebly to the avian flu risks coming from the Far East. Already having taken nearly one hundred lives, should this avian flu mutate with a human virus, a deadly pandemic could sweep the world with tens of millions of fatalities.

I have written thrice to President Bush about the need to launch a war against this kind of microscopic terrorism by diversifying his speeches and making room for a major national address on this subject. He could put forth a program of greater support for training more infectious diseases specialists and working with other countries for an early alert system so that the requisite quarantines and vaccine development can get underway in time. There have been no responses from the White House.

Such an initiative would cost a fraction of the annual $9 to $10 billion dollars that Bush is spending on the boondoggle missile defense business. (A technology so easily decoyable and dubious that it has been deemed unworkable by the American Physical Society). But missile defense and other massive military weapons programs, conceived for a Soviet Union era of hostility, make big profits for corporations. Vaccines do not make big profits for drug companies the way lifestyle drugs do.

The daily headlines are sounding grave alarms. Rob Stein and Shankar Vedantam of The Washington Post report that a strain of the flu virus H2N2 that caused a worldwide pandemic and killed more than one million people worldwide in 1957 and 1958 was mistakenly sent to thousands of laboratories in the United States and around the world. Keith Bradsher’s reports from China for the Times have been getting ever more somber. The latest dispatch headlines “Some Asian Bankers worry about the Economic Toll from Bird Flu.”

Maybe if business profits are jeopardized by what a pandemic can do to an economy, officialdom will reorder its twisted priorities. The deadly Marburg virus (nine of ten people afflicted die) now spreading slowly in Angola is another wake up call for our country to change its priorities from continually adding to the largest major weapons arsenal in world history (nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, missiles, planes, etc.) and moving to life-saving and health-preserving investments for prevention before vaccines are needed.

It is time to know the names of the scientists already working on this great venture for health and hear them out.

Hear ye, media!











Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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