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Salk vaccine cover-up resonates today

September 13th, 2005
Oak Park, Illinois

Originally printed in: Oak Leaves on Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Barbara Mullarkey’s July 6 letter was a contribution toward an understanding of the hidden problems of the 1965 Salk polio vaccine program.

When he brought home a small, cardboard box that year, containing nine vials of the new Salk vaccine, Herbert Ratner, M.D., director of the Oak Park Health Department, did not know that they were contaminated with cancer-causing Simian Virus 40 (SV40) from the green monkey liver tissue on which the vaccine had been grown. No one, at that time, yet knew of the monkey virus.

His concern in 1955 was rather than from his analysis of epidemiological data he had become aware that the supposedly killed virus Salk vaccine contained dangerous live polio virus which, in various places around the country including Illinois, was causing polio in vaccinated children, and that this information was not reported by the press.

Dr. Ratner’s purpose in bringing the vials to his home was to get inconvertible proof that the Salk vaccine contained live polio virus. He and two other local physicians, Dr. Gregory White and Dr. John Kelly, planned to administer the vaccine to themselves at intervals to determine if their antibodies were rising in response to live virus in the vaccine. Dr. Ratner and his two fellow physicians had to call off the experiment as too risky, however, when preliminary tests they did on themselves showed that Dr. Ratner himself lacked antibodies to the most deadly strain of the polio virus.

At that time, Dr. Ratner was editor of The Bulletin of the American Association of Public Health Physicians. So, although he had not been able to go through with his experiment to demonstrate that there was live polio virus in the Salk vaccine, he was able to publish a critique in the November and December issues of The Bulletin, setting forth the epidemiological evidence that the Salk vaccine had been causing the disease it was intended to prevent.

The then heads of the government health agencies chose not to respond to Dr. Ratner’s critique; they instead chose to simply ignore it. And soon after his critique appeared, the president of one of the drug companies, which manufactured the vaccine, succeeded in getting Dr. Ratner removed from the editorship by threatening a member of the association’s executive committee with the loss of his job, if the committee did not get rid of Ratner.

In 1960, Dr. Ratner learned that a government researcher, Dr. Bernice Eddy, had discovered evidence of a cancer-causing agent in the Salk vaccine. The agent was soon identified as a monkey virus. Eddy’s superiors ordered her to remain silent about her discovery. When, about that same time, he learned that eight children in Niles had contracted leukemia within several years of having received the 1955 Salk vaccine. Dr. Ratner understood the importance of continuing to hold on to the vials of 1955 vaccine in his refrigerator.

Although they knew by 1960 that there was a cancer-causing monkey virus in the Salk vaccine, the government health agencies allowed the contaminated vaccine to stay on the shelves of pharmacies for another year and a half until a vaccine, believed to be free of the viral contaminant, could be developed. Then they quietly replaced the old stock with the newer version of the Salk vaccine. Neither the nation’s physicians nor the public were told there was a problem with the older vaccine.

In an effort to verify that there was monkey virus in his 1955 Salk vaccine, Dr. Ratner had given vials of his old vaccine to researchers at two separate institutions before finally giving vials to molecular pathologist and soon-to-be-Oak Parker, Dr. Michele Carbone in 1997. Dr.Carbone discovered that there were not one but two strains of SV40 in the 1955 vaccine.

The government cover-ups of problems with the Salk vaccine in 1955 and 1960 make a cautionary tale of what can happen in a democratic society when monetary interests and face-saving win out over standard scientific caution and concern for public safety. “The crass manipulation of the public by establishment professionals in 1955,” Dr. Ratner wrote, “was a turning point in the history of modern medicine.”

What happened at that time is relevant to present day collusion between government health agencies and the pharmaceutical industry and to the laxity of our present laws which allow physicians in the pay of drug companies to serve, despite obvious conflicts of interest, on government committees which evaluate vaccines and other pharmaceuticals.

Helen Ratner Dietz