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Dr. Maurice Hilleman – Uncelebrated Vaccine Hero Who Saved Millions

By Shlomo Maital

Dr. Maurice Hilleman – Saved Millions!

     Vaccines are front and center in the news these days; strangely, rumors and news and false news and half-truths about vaccines drive the stock market up and down.

   So perhaps it is worth recalling one of the world’s greatest vaccine innovators, Dr. Maurice Hilleman – thanks to a great piece in the New York Times, published a month ago and recently featured on the BBC. Hilleman, while working for Merck, was responsible for the measles mumps rubella (MMR) triple vaccine that has saved the lines of countless children. Here is the story:

     At 1 a.m. on March 21, 1963, an intense, irascible but modest Merck scientist named Maurice R. Hilleman was asleep at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Lafayette Hill when his 5-year-old daughter, Jeryl Lynn, woke him with a sore throat. Dr. Hilleman felt the side of her face and then the telltale swelling beneath the jaw indicating mumps. He tucked her back into bed, about the only treatment anyone could offer at the time. For most children, mumps was a nuisance disease, nothing worse than a painful swelling of the salivary glands. But Dr. Hilleman knew that it could sometimes leave a child deaf or otherwise permanently impaired.   He quickly dressed and drove 20 minutes to pick up proper sampling equipment from his laboratory. Returning home, he woke Jeryl Lynn long enough to swab the back of her throat and immerse the specimen in a nutrient broth. Then he drove back to store it in the laboratory freezer.   The name Maurice Hilleman may not ring a bell. But today 95 percent of American children receive the M.M.R. — the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella that Dr. Hilleman invented, starting with the mumps strain he collected that night from his daughter.

We read endless stories of the US Federal government, UK government, and governments in China and Russia, throwing billions of dollars at pharmaceutical companies, buying in advance millions of doses of vaccines that are as yet unproven. And I think of Dr. Maurice Hilleman, one irascible physician and vaccine developer who saved more persons than any other scientist alive or dead.

It was by no means his only contribution. At Dr. Hilleman’s death in 2005, other researchers credited him with having saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. Over his career, he devised or substantially improved more than 25 vaccines, including 9 of the 14 now routinely recommended for children. “One person did that!” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a longtime friend of Dr. Hilleman’s and now director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Truly amazing.”

Is there a Maurice Hilleman out there, applying perseverance, creativity, wisdom, and, yes, opportunism (his daughter’s illness) to save the world?



Vaccines – Without the Ouch!

By Shlomo Maital

I regularly listen to Science Friday, a National Public Radio program on WBUR (you can download their app easily). Some 2 million people listen every week. The host Ira Flatow explains complex scientific breakthroughs with a light touch, clear language and a sense of humor.

   This week’s edition included a segment on a novel pathbreaking way to administer vaccines, without the long needles or the ouch. Scientists at George Teach (Faculty of Chemical and Biomolecular engineering) developed a kind of patch (like the kind used to administer heart medicine) – only this patch has micro-needles, that contain the vaccine, e.g. flu vaccine. You simply slap it on your upper arm….and the micro-needles penetrate the skin and administer the vaccine.   No ouch, no needle, and – most important, no need for a doctor or a trained nurse to administer the needle. You can do it yourself.   And you don’t need to refrigerate the patches, either.

     Once the vaccine has been delivered to the blood stream, the micro-needles, which are water soluble, simply dissolve.   You pull off the patch – and discard it.  This is a huge breakthrough. Why? Because in poor countries, like Africa, getting vaccine into rural areas, and keeping it refrigerated, then having nurses or doctors administer it – this is a real challenge. These new patches could solve the problem.

       The Georgia Tech experts say they have tested the flu vaccine’s effectiveness, when administered with the patch, and it is equal to the vaccine injected by needle.

     What does the patch feel like? Flatow asked.   Like….a piece of Velcro on your skin, came the answer.

       How soon will this be available? Ira Flatow asked.

       About five years, came the answer.

      I sure wish they would speed it up!  

       This is a great example, for innovators, of uncovering hidden assumptions and smashing them. Assumption: Vaccines are administered invariably by needles. Right? Always have been.

         Well, why?   Maybe here is another way.

         I just wonder why it took researchers so long to get rid of those needles, that frighten so many people, including grown men….. and make vaccination so expensive.  It’s those insidious hidden assumptions!


Vaccines: Time for Legislation

By Shlomo Maital


  New York Times report Elisabeth Rosenthal reveals to us another Big Pharma ripoff – this time related to vaccines.   When in the world will the U.S. Congress act to end this travesty?

   According to Rosenthal, Big Pharma uses the ‘new improved yogurt’ trick to fatten profits and hurt the middle class and the poor.  If you sell price-regulated yogurt,  change the package, add something (fermented kiwi juice) – and claim it is a new product, hence not subject to the old price controls.

   In vaccines Rosenthal writes:

     “Old vaccines have been reformulated with higher costs. New ones have entered the market at once-unthinkable prices. Together, since 1986, they have pushed up the average cost to fully vaccinate a child with private insurance to the age of 18 to $2,192 from $100, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even with deep discounts, the costs for the federal government, which buys half of all vaccines for the nation’s children, have increased 15-fold during that period. The most expensive shot for young children in Dr. Irvin’s refrigerator is Prevnar 13, which prevents diseases caused by pneumococcal bacteria, from ear infections to pneumonia. Like many vaccines, Prevnar requires multiple jabs. Each shot is priced at $136, and every child in the United States is required to get four doses before entering school. Pfizer, the sole manufacturer, had revenues of nearly $4 billion from its Prevnar vaccine line last year, about double what it made from high-profile drugs like Lipitor and Viagra, which now face generic competitors.”

Let’s see that again. A price rise from $100 to $2,192???   And remember vaccination is not optional; it is essential for the lifetime health and wellbeing of every child.

  Half of all vaccines are bought by the U.S. federal government. Their costs have risen 15-fold!   Why is it that when we ordinary folks get ripped off, we scream – but when Big Pharma rips off the government, there is silence?? At a time when deep budget cuts are hurting everyone?  

   When one company, Pfizer, makes $4 billion from ONE vaccine, Prevnar, double what it makes from a high-profile blockbuster drug, something is radically wrong. Wake up America!

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital