Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hilleman -- A Perilous Quest to Save the World's Children

Born into poverty on the eastern plains of Montana, Maurice R. Hilleman began his life in obscurity before spending many, highly productive years immersed in sedulous research. Few people recognize his name, yet he is one the most important scientists in human history. It's likely you owe him a debt, if not for saving your life, then for saving the lives of people you care about.

Hilleman developed more than half of the vaccines children receive today. He prevented pandemic influenza at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he developed the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and the first vaccine against cancer. He tackled chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, meningitis and more. American biomedical researcher Robert Gallo, who played a key role in discovering the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the HIV blood test, called Hilleman "the most successful vaccinologist in history."

By many accounts, the eponymous subject of this film was an irascible man, but he was also a deeply caring and ethical one who showed an eager willingness to pull drugs from the market if they posed troublesome and unknown health risks. He thrived in an era when the public and medical establishment cooperated in an environment of mutual respect and trust. Nowadays, layman opinions are often formed individually after Google searching a world wide web where any and all sides of a debate are presented in unsifted search result lists. The current way we process information makes it difficult to gain facts, context and perspective when making personal and public health decisions. Members of the medical establishment often feel they're squaring off against New Agey pseudoscience in the public square. Questions of personal choice and freedom versus the public good arise. Powerful testimonies of adverse reactions to vaccines are presented without the support of meticulous research, leaving many people confused or highly opinionated. In this toxic environment, parties to the vaccine debate can harden and refuse to listen. As a learned friend of mine once put it, we've gone from "'it's right because God says so,' to 'it's right no matter what the opinion is because all truth is relative,' to 'only my way is right because I say so.'"

This superb documentary puts such debates in the context of a much wider truth: a child in the industrialized world today has a far better chance of surviving childhood than kids ever had when all food was organic but the closest thing to a hospital was a small town doctor visiting a sick person's bedside. No one wants to be given a shot, but thank goodness we have them. New frontiers of science offer hope for drugs that better match one's DNA, but in the meantime, director Donald Mitchell and his team gravely caution us against returning to the days of polio epidemics.

It's a crying shame that such a great man remains obscure. This film helps fix that problem, too. You can watch the trailer here: Hilleman Trailer