Tag Archives: Harvard

Waiting for a Vaccine

 

While the world, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I can’t help remembering a long-ago time in my life when the world faced another deadly disease.

And I vividly remember how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.

Covid-19 poses a special threat.  The U.S. has just surpassed one million cases, according to The Washington Post.  It’s a new and unknown virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky.  So far.

Testing of the entire population is essential, as is the development of effective therapies for treating those who are diagnosed as positive.  But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.

Overwhelming everything else right now is an oppressive feeling of fear.  Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to a gruesome hospitalization and, finally, death.

I recognize that feeling of fear.  Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.

Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio.  Some may have memories of that time that are as vivid as mine.  Others may have suppressed the ugly memories associated with the fear of polio.  And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.

People were aware of the disease called polio—the common name for poliomyelitis (originally and mistakenly called infantile paralysis; it didn’t affect only the young) — for a long time.  It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.

Before polio vaccines were available,  outbreaks in the U.S. caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year.  In the late 1940s, these outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year.  Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.

Polio appeared in several different forms.  About 95% of the cases were asymptomatic.  Others were mild, causing ordinary virus-like symptoms, and most people recovered quickly.  But some victims contracted a more serious form of the disease.  They suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.  Many survivors were disabled for life, and they became a visible reminder of the enormous toll polio took on children’s lives.

The polio virus is highly infectious, spreading through contact between people, generally entering the body through the mouth.  A cure for it has never been found, so the ultimate goal has always been prevention via a vaccine.  Thanks to the vaccine first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk, polio was eventually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.  It continues to circulate in a few countries elsewhere in the world, where vaccination programs aim to eliminate these last pockets because there is always a risk that it can spread within non-vaccinated populations.

[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear.  It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear.  There is still no vaccine, although research efforts continue.  Notably, Jonas Salk spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS.  Until there is a vaccine, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened fear of the disease.]

When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease.  Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer.  We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.

We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims.  Even though TV images back then were in black and white, they were clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside a huge piece of machinery called an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe.  Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs.  They were the lucky ones.  Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.

So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.

I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  He had a serious case, causing paralysis, and although he was open about having had polio, he has been criticized for concealing how extensive his disability really was.

Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and it soon became a charity called the March of Dimes.  The catch phrase “march of dimes” was coined by popular actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor, who worked vigorously on the campaign to raise funds for research.  Using a name like that of the well-known newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio, as well as to help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes has evolved into an ongoing charity focused on the health of mothers and babies, specifically on preventing birth defects.)

Yes, polio was defeated by a vaccine.  For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of the recipients of its funds was a young physician at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine named Jonas Salk.

Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially after 1947, when he was recruited to be the director of the school’s Virus Research Laboratory.  There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus.  He first administered it to volunteers who included himself, his wife, and their children.  All of them developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. Then, in 1954, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children between six and nine, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.

I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking.  It changed everything.  It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.

But it wasn’t immediately available.  It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone, and the number of polio cases during those two years averaged 45,000.

Because we couldn’t get injections of the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered.  Before I could get my own injection, I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking around at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.

My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971:  “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”  I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine already existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.

I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly.  Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.

In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, an orally-administered vaccine that was both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.

(By the way, neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by commercial entities like pharmaceutical companies.)

Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims.  But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.

Because the whole world is confronting this new and terrible virus, valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a “safe, effective and potent” vaccine.  And there are encouraging signs coming from different directions.  Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and they have pivoted toward developing a possible vaccine to defeat the new threat.  Clinical trials may take place within the next few months.

Similarly, some Harvard researchers haven’t taken a day off since early January, working hard to develop a vaccine.  Along with the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, this group plans to launch clinical trials in the fall.

While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did.  With today’s improved technology, and a by-now long and successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal very soon.  Only then, when we are all able to receive the benefits of an effective vaccine, will our lives truly begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”

Celebrating Love in the City of Light

Along with the rest of the civilized world, I was horrified to learn of the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on November 13th. They were followed by an equally–perhaps even more–disturbing attack in San Bernardino.

Both of these have shaken me. San Bernardino? Because it hit so close to home.

Paris? Because Paris has a special place in my heart.

Special indeed. I celebrated my first, tenth, and 26th wedding anniversaries in Paris.

Celebrating anniversaries in Paris…. Romantic, n’est-ce pas?  But here’s what’s more important: Those anniversaries were filled with the kind of love that lasts even longer than spine-tingling heart-pounding romance.

On our first anniversary, Herb and I were in Paris on our very first trip to Europe. We made plans to dine with some old friends (including one of Herb’s Harvard roommates) who were living in Geneva and drove into Paris to see us.  We didn’t tell them it was our anniversary till we visited them in Geneva several days later. (I think Herb didn’t want them to treat us to dinner.)

So on our anniversary we dined at a typical French restaurant near our hotel on the Boulevard Saint-Germain instead of a pricey and far more elegant one. When we finally confided that we’d spent our first wedding anniversary with them, Herb’s roommate said, “You should have told us! We could have blown our wad and gone to the Tour d’Argent.”

But I hadn’t minded our modest dinner on the Left Bank. Just being with Herb, along with our friends, was more than enough. The evening had been filled with laughter and love. And there was plenty of time for romance later when we were alone.

Our tenth anniversary was very different. Herb was on a sabbatical from the university in Chicago where he taught math.  During our month in Paris, Herb spent most days at the University of Paris, where he communed with other mathematicians while I shepherded our two small daughters (ages 4 and 7) around the city.

We ate dinner together every night, and our anniversary dinner was no exception. We dined with our daughters at a small and inexpensive bistro on the Left Bank, very near our apartment in the 5th arrondisement. Our modest apartment was on the Rue Tournefort, one street over from the better-known Rue Mouffetard, and the area, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, was filled with bistros like this one.

We were preoccupied with our daughters, making sure we ordered food they would cheerfully eat (no fancy French sauces for them!), and reprimanding them if their behavior became too rambunctious. So as an anniversary dinner, it wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t romantic. But the love all of us felt for each other turned the evening into a memorable one I’ll never forget.

Our 26th anniversary was even better. By this time, our daughters were no longer children, and our older daughter, Meredith, was spending all year in Paris on a graduate fellowship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Herb and I, along with our younger daughter, Leslie, traveled to Paris to meet Meredith and spend some time there, after which the four of us traveled together in France for another ten days.

Our anniversary fell on our third day in Paris, and Herb asked me to choose a place for dinner. I picked a small restaurant on the Ile St.-Louis, one of my favorite places in all of Paris.

We walked there from our Left Bank hotel, strolling along the Seine, crossing the bridge that leads to Notre-Dame, then crossing the bridge to the Ile. The weather was sunny and warm, and we laughed and chatted as we walked.

We arrived on the island and enjoyed perusing menus posted outside the restaurants on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile as we approached our destination. Then we shared a delightful dinner at the restaurant I’d chosen, where our charming waiter took photos of us laughing and eating and reveling in just being together.  After dinner, we strolled to Berthillon, famed for its glaces and their unique flavors, and we devoured our ice cream on the spot. That evening was one of the most blissful I’ve ever spent.

I’ve been to Paris on five other trips (I wrote about one of them in a blog post last November, “Down and Hot in Paris and London”). I recently returned for the eighth time, and Paris was just as beautiful as I remembered.

But Paris without Herb? It’s never been quite the same.

When Herb died, he left me with years of memories filled with the extraordinary love and happiness we shared.  The three anniversaries we celebrated in Paris are at the top of my list.

 

 

 

Put some spice into your (longer) life

Do you like spicy food? I do! So I was happy to learn about the mounting evidence that eating spicy food is linked to a longer life.

The New York Times, CNN, and Time magazine recently reported on a Chinese study of nearly half a million people (487,375, to be exact). The mass of data collected in that study showed an association between eating spicy food and a reduced risk of death.

The study, reported in the medical journal BMJ, included Chinese men and women enrolled between 2004 and 2008 and followed for an average of more than seven years. Using self-reported questionnaires, the researchers analyzed the spicy food consumption of people aged 30 to 70 across 10 regions in China, excluding those with cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The researchers controlled for family medical history, age, education, diabetes, smoking, and a host of other variables.

They found that those eating spicy food, mainly food containing chili peppers, once or twice a week had a 10 percent reduced overall risk for death, compared with those eating spicy food less than once a week. Further, they found that consuming spicy food six to seven times a week reduced the risk even more–14 percent.

Spicy food eaters had lower rates of ischemic heart disease, respiratory diseases, and cancers. (Ischemic heart disease, a common cause of death, arises from a reduced blood supply to the heart, usually caused by atherosclerosis.)

Although the researchers drew no conclusions about cause and effect, they pointed out that capsaicin, the main ingredient in chili peppers, had been found in other studies to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

“There is accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research to show the benefit of spices or their active components on human health,” said Lu Qi, an associate professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author of the study. But, he added, “we need more evidence, especially from clinical trials, to further verify these findings, and we are looking forward to seeing data from other populations.”

What’s different about spicy foods? The study highlights the benefits of capsaicin, a bioactive ingredient in chili peppers, which has previously been linked to health perks like increased fat-burning.

But most experts emphasize the need for more research. One such expert is Daphne Miller, associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World, Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You.”

Miller told CNN that many variables associated with eating spicy food haven’t been addressed in the study. The study itself notes that it lacks information about other dietary and lifestyle habits and how the spicy food was cooked or prepared. “It’s an observational study within a single culture,” she said.

In addition, the researchers note that although chili pepper was the most commonly used spice, the use of other spices tends to increase as the use of chili pepper increases. Consuming these other spices may also result in health benefits.

But Miller said the findings are still plausible, given the fact that spicy foods also have high levels of phenolic content, which are chemicals with nutritional and anti-inflammatory values.

Bio-psychologist John E. Hayes agrees. Hayes, an associate professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State University, has previously studied spicy food and personality association. According to CNN, he notes that chili intake has an overall protective effect. But why? “Is it a biological mechanism or a behavioral mechanism?”

Eating spicy food might work biologically to increase the basil metabolic rate, says Hayes. But it might also slow food intake, causing a person to eat fewer calories.

Although Lu Qi believes the protective effect associated with spicy foods would translate across cultures, Hayes isn’t sure. When we talk about spicy food, “we can mean vastly different things, with different health implications,” Hayes says. “That spicy food could be…vegetables, like kimchee. Or it could be…barbecued spare ribs.”

“This isn’t an excuse to go out and eat 24 wings and then rationalize it by claiming they are going to make you live longer,” Hayes adds.

Let’s not forget that eating spicy foods also has some risks. Spicy food can create problems for people with incontinence or overactive bladders, according to Kristen Burns, an adult urology nurse-practitioner at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. And some believe that spicy foods can aggravate colds or sinus infections.

Another risk is “heartburn.” Does spicy food trigger heartburn in some people? Yes, but not always. According to Lauren Gerson, a gastroenterologist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, a lot of her patients with heartburn (more precisely acid reflux disease, or GERD), were told by other doctors to stop eating everything on a list of 10 trigger foods. The list included favorite foods like chocolate and spicy food.

Gerson told Nutrition Action that these patients were “miserable because their heartburn wasn’t much better” even when they gave up all of those foods. Gerson and her then-colleagues at Stanford University screened more than 2,000 studies, looking for evidence that avoiding trigger foods helps curb acid reflux systems. They found that there wasn’t “any data out there that if you stop these foods…, GERD would get any better.”

So when the American College of Gastroenterology updated its treatment guidelines for GERD in 2013, it concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence for doctors to advise cutting out a whole list of foods. Instead, patients are advised to avoid certain foods only if that lessens their symptoms. The key seems to be “individualized trigger avoidance,” allowing many heartburn sufferers to enjoy spicy food, so long as it doesn’t make their symptoms worse.

The bottom line? If you like the taste of spicy food, and it doesn’t trigger any adverse effects (like heartburn or weight-gain from too many calories), you should enthusiastically munch on the spicy foods you love. According to the latest research, you just might prolong your life.

Bon appetit!