The will to work together to solve an epidemic: Polio in 1952

The disease had been known for many years. When it made an appearance in a town or county, schools closed and children were kept away from each other, because catching this disease could mean debilitating long-term consequences and even death.

In the worst outbreak of the disease, over 58,000 cases were reported in the United States, mostly children though a third of the cases were in patients at least 15 years old. 36% of those who contracted the disease that year – over 21,000 – were left with permanent physical problems, including mild to complete paralysis. If the paralysis was focused on the chest muscles, patients could suffocate unless an apparatus to assist breathing, an iron lung, was available.

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Tale of the tape: Redfield vs. Trump

UPDATE (6:20 p.m.) – The New York Times is reporting this evening that the information about coronavirus testing that was published on the CDC’s website last month that raised questions about the agency’s independence was actually written and posted by staff from the Department of Health and Human Services over the objections of CDC staff.

On Wednesday, Dr. Robert Redfield, who is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified to Congress about the current state of the coronavirus pandemic. At one point, he suggested that a vaccine against COVID-19 was more likely to be available next year and, holding a mask in his hand, suggested that masks were the best defense against the virus. This, he suggested, is because the efficacy rate of vaccines is not 100% (70 to 80 percent would be considered pretty good), while masks, if worn consistently (and correctly) provide dependable protection.

Wednesday evening, President Trump contradicted Redfield, because the “vaccine won’t be available until 2021” and “wearing masks is important” messages don’t fly in the no-fact-zone that is the White House these days. Trump suggested that Redfield was “confused” and got the timeline wrong, even claiming that Redfield had said as much in a phone call with the president.

The CDC has been criticized recently as it’s become apparent that political pressure has been put on the agency, causing some of its statistical reporting and other public health information to be questioned, which is a shame. The CDC has been a world leader in public health science, and it’s terrible to watch that reputation be tarnished in the U.S. and globally.

Science isn’t easy to comprehend, though, so it’s easy to see how someone might become “confused.” Let’s take a quick look at the scientific credentials of each of the players to see who might be more likely to be “confused” by epidemiological data:

Robert Redfield

  • Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Administrator, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  • B.S., Georgetown University, 1973
  • M.D., Georgetown University School of Medicine, 1977
  • During college worked at Columbia University labs focusing on retrovirus effects in human disease
  • Medical residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center while serving in the U.S. Army
  • Continued as a U.S. Army physician, specializing in virology and immunology clinical research
  • Retired from the Army in 1996, holding the rank of colonel
  • Co-founded the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, focusing on HIV research
  • When appointed director of CDC, he stated that the agency was “science-based and data-driven, and that’s why the CDC has the credibility around the world that it has.”

Donald Trump

  • 45th President of the United States
  • Real estate tycoon and television personality
  • B.S. in economics, University of Pennsylvania (has claimed to have graduated first in his class from the Wharton School at Penn, but his academic records have never been released)
  • No other education or experience in science or medicine
  • Generally rejects scientific evidence related to the coronavirus (“It goes away, and it goes away quickly,” “doesn’t have much of an impact” on children, “herd mentality”, etc.) and climate change (“I don’t think science knows, actually.”)

While Redfield’s nomination to be CDC Director in 2018 wasn’t without controversy, I think I’ll take the advice of someone with actual experience as a medical doctor and virologist over the man who told us on February 27, “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”