August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and it seems appropriate that while heading to New York for business I managed to watch the in-flight movie "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." I read the book years ago and have recommended it to many, as it is such a great read about an incredible woman who unknowingly changed medicine and science. The movie was produced by Harpo Films and Oprah Winfrey stars. That alone is enough to get you hooked!
The story is sad but true. Unfortunately in the 1950s we did not have laws to protect patient rights; but Henrietta Lacks' life and her story changed all of ours. Why? Because the cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins took from her during her treatment for cervical cancer were ultimately used to grow more cells, which would be used over and over again in developing vaccines and so many other medical breakthroughs! It is incredible that these cells, which are named HeLa cells (from portions of Lacks' first and last name), literally changed the world of medicine. Not everyone knew her story when studying HeLa cells, but I am hopeful more and more remember her due to this excellent book and now HBO movie.
I was amazed by this story, which demonstrates the science (albeit from unfortunate circumstances) that enabled scientists to begin to develop vaccines. I continue to be amazed at those who "don't believe in vaccines." Just as Lacks' HeLa cells have changed our medical and scientific world, so have vaccines.
During Lacks' life the United States was in a state of panic as countless children and adults came down with polio and many died or were paralyzed. But after HeLa cells were found to propagate, the cell cultures were used to meet the needs of researchers working on the development of a polio vaccine. A HeLa factory was opened at the Tuskegee Institute to manufacture HeLa cells. This cell line was ultimately instrumental in testing the vaccine and demonstrating the development of antibodies against polio. Subsequently, Jonas Salk's vaccine was approved and given to children, and the polio epidemic was stopped in the United States.
Pure, eloquent science reduced disease and save lives. The panic against polio subsided, but we are now "too complacent" about infectious disease. We even take vaccines for granted, while some choose not to be protected by a vaccine. Hundreds and hundreds of researchers have come and gone since the first HeLa cells were used, but Henrietta Lacks' legacy and her "gift" to science remain. We all need to know more about the woman from whom those precious cells had come, and say thank you.
Talk to your doctor and make sure your children are protected.
(Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award-winning pediatrician, medical editor and media host. "The Kid's Doctor" TV feature can be seen on more than 90 stations across the U.S. Submit questions at http://www.kidsdr.com. The Kid's Doctor e-book, "Tattoos to Texting: Parenting Today's Teen," is now available from Amazon and other e-book vendors.)
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