Defeating ‘the American Plague’

Yellow fever doesn’t have the cachet of the Black Death or the Asian flu, but the mosquito-borne disease nicknamed “the American Plague” has tormented the world for centuries.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the virus causes 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year, and not just in the tropics. The disease first struck New York City in 1668, followed by at least 25 major outbreaks in the Americas, including an 1878 epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that killed 20,000 people.

There is a vaccine, developed after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 by scientists throughout the world. However, historically it needed to be freeze-dried, a process prone to mechanical issues until it was refined in the early 1950s by National Drug in the small hamlet of Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.

You can read the story of this and other vaccine innovations in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought to revolutionize healthcare in America.

An outbreak of innovation

The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep America.

In the late 1800s, smallpox ravaged the nation. In New York City, the mid-century death rate from the disease hit 21.9 people per 100,000. In nearby Pennsylvania, by 1900 the disease had killed thousands.

There was a vaccine. And it worked. Some of the time. And there were side-effects.

The solution? A cross-cultural effort that combined French ingenuity with American innovation.

You can read the full story in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought the odds to revolutionize healthcare in America.

 

 

When history repeats itself

It’s wonderful when readers are touched by something I’ve written. As Carla-Donna has given me permission, I thought I’d share her review of my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater: 100 Years at the Pocono Labs. It chronicles the history of vaccines in the 20th century, through the stories of people who helped to eradicate smallpox, among others diseases. Here’s Carla’s history, and her take on the book.
“I just purchased The Spirit of Swiftwater. The reason being, I was wondering if they were going to start work on a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. When I looked them up, somehow I was introduced to your book. Long story short, I grew up in Stroudsburg, my home town, and had once applied for a job at Swiftwater during my college years at East Stroudsburg State College. Our friend, Pete Gerard, made it his career working there. It was nice to see his name in the book.
“My name is Carla-Donna (Holmgren) Martin. My father, Donald Holmgren, had a store in Stroudsburg, Donald’s Family Shoes, for many years.
“As it turned out, I became a registered medical technologist and retired from working 40 years in the hospital laboratory at Lancaster General Hospital, Lancaster, PA. My husband and I live in Lititz now and still visit Stroudsburg several times a year.
“Kudos to you for this very informative work on the Swiftwater Lab. Doc Slee was a household name growing up and this book was enlightening on his family and wonderful achievements and the ups and downs of the lab’s growth.
“In light of what we as a nation and the world are going through right now, hopefully a vaccine will be forthcoming from Swiftwater!”

The vaccine-hunters

The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?

More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.

First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.

The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.

Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.

The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Eradicating ignorance

We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.

A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.

Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.

Some things haven’t change.

In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the Spirit of Swiftwatertotal for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?

You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”

Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.