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‘Your Choice Impacts Others’

‘Your Choice Impacts Others’

By Karen Knight

Dr. Paul Offit, of Philadelphia and Avalon, is the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, an international authority on Covid and the author of 11 books.
Karen Knight
Dr. Paul Offit, of Philadelphia and Avalon, is the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, an international authority on Covid and the author of 11 books.

Pediatrician from Avalon is an international authority on Covid and vaccines

Editor’s Note: Cape May County ranks 15th nationwide and first in the state as a second home destination, so this summer the Herald will be periodically featuring stories about interesting second homeowners. If you have the name of someone you would like to nominate, please email editor@cmcherald.com with the reason why and with contact information. This is the first in that series.

AVALON – When Paul Offit was 5 years old, he found himself at the James Lawrence Kernan Hospital & Industrial School of Maryland for Crippled Children in Baltimore, being treated for what he describes as a “botched” operation to repair his club feet. He remembers lying in bed, listening to other young children scream as they were treated for polio.

“The experience really scarred me,” said the now 73-year-old medical professor/pediatrician/author/co-inventor and consultant, from his home in Avalon. “You could only have visitors one hour a week, and my father was a traveling salesman who wasn’t able to visit, and my mother was ill from complications she suffered during her pregnancy with my brother.

“I was by myself as I listened to these young, vulnerable children who were being treated. It was really a scarring experience for me, and I think the reason I wanted to get into medicine.”

During his pediatric residency, he was exposed to a team working on infectious diseases. That caught his interest, and he thought he would become a clinician in the field. During a two-year fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he helped conduct some research and found that he loved the process.

The rest, as they say, is history. Offit is described by colleagues and other medical professionals in recent book reviews as “a national treasure … who has emerged from the ranks of doctors and scientists as one of the world’s most effective communicators,” known for his “extraordinary talents as a physician, vaccine developer and children’s advocate” who is “exquisitely attuned to the burden shouldered by the earliest recipients of medical treatments and technologies.”

Offit, who is a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee and a former member of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital, as well as the Maurice R. Hillman Professor of Vaccinology and a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

The co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, he is a national and international authority on Covid and has published more than 180 papers in medical and scientific journals. His 11th book, “Tell Me When It’s Over,” is an insider’s guide to deciphering Covid myths and navigating the post-pandemic world.

In short, Offit is pro-vaccine. He rattles off information and statistics about infectious diseases, infection rates, death rates and more with a drive and passion that keeps him going. “I have a hard time relaxing,” he admitted, “although I do walk the boardwalk and think about things.”

He has been on both sides of the table when it comes to trying to get a vaccine approved for use, and determining whether one should be approved.

“There were two large clinical trials,” he said, recalling how Pfizer and Moderna had tested more than 70,000 people in two Covid vaccine clinical trials before the vaccine was approved for use.

“But half of each clinical trial received placebos, so you know that the other shoe is going to drop some time,” he added. “I pored through 300 pages of data, looking at every sentence, trying to get a hint of what the other shoe might be. But there weren’t any hints. Who would have known that one out of 50,000 would develop myocarditis? The testing group wasn’t big enough at the time.”

Offit remembered how Children’s Hospital was “overwhelmed with children with the Covid virus.” He was vaccinated as soon as he could be; however, he was not in the first tier because he was not working in the intensive care unit or emergency room at the time. He received boosters as well, and eventually had a mild case of the virus himself.

He and his wife, Bonnie, who is a pediatrician, hunkered down in Avalon when the pandemic started with their adult children and other family members for what they initially thought would be a “couple weeks. It ended up being six months,” Bonnie Offit recalled. “We were lucky that we had a home large enough for all of us to work here. The high point was everyone taking turns preparing dinner.”

The Offits’ move to buy a home in Avalon came after the family rented during the summer on Seven Mile Island and Bonnie Offit opened and ran a frozen yogurt shop for many years. While the shop is now closed, they spend more time now in Avalon, but also split their time between winters in Florida and Philadelphia, where they have an apartment.

While Covid took center stage recently, Offit said the “most dramatic single moment” in his career was in February 2006, when the FDA licensed his rotavirus vaccine for infants. Rotavirus spreads easily among infants and young children and can cause severe watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain.

Children who get rotavirus disease can become dehydrated, may need to be hospitalized and can die, according to the CDC. Most children (about nine out of 10) who get the vaccine will be protected from severe rotavirus disease. About seven out of 10 will be protected from rotavirus disease of any severity.

“For me, the significance of the FDA’s approval of the vaccine came about a week later, when the advisory committee recommended that the rotavirus vaccine become a required vaccine,” the pediatrician said. “I happened to be at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis because I was speaking at St. Jude’s Hospital. I was looking at the ‘I Am a Man’ exhibit, and it hit me … what had just happened. I wept. It had been 25 years of go/no go with the vaccine, and finally, it was a go and a required vaccination.”

Writing became part of Offit’s life in the late 1990s, when he started to research the so-called Cutter incident, which occurred in April 1955 when more than 200,000 children in five western and midwestern states received a polio vaccine in which the process of inactivating the live virus proved to be defective.

Within days, there were reports of paralysis and, within a month, the first mass vaccination program against polio had to be abandoned. Subsequent investigations revealed that the vaccine, manufactured by the California-based family firm of Cutter Laboratories, had caused 40,000 cases of polio, leaving 200 children with varying degrees of paralysis and killing 10.

He wrote a book about the incident and the impact of the polio vaccine in society, exploring how, as a consequence of the tragedy, one jury’s verdict set in motion events that eventually suppressed the production of vaccines already licensed and deterred the development of new vaccines that held the promise of preventing other fatal diseases.

“As a child, measles were very common,” Offit said. “You had diphtheria, polio; these all caused deaths. In the 1950s, there were almost 500 deaths a year from measles. In 1952, there were more than 3,000 deaths from polio.

“Now, these diseases have been eliminated because of the vaccines, and many people today have no memory of them. I understand that vaccines are your choice, but it’s not only yourself you are impacting, you are impacting others if you decide not to be vaccinated.

“I know people made the Covid vaccines out to be a personal-choice issue during Covid because they thought vaccines shouldn’t be mandated, but now your choice impacts others, and that’s not OK.

“As children growing up in the 1950s, I think there was much more of a societal feeling than there is now. Look at the March of Dimes, a private organization, that raised funds for research and focused national attention on the disease (polio). They paid for the vaccine. It was a different time.”

Offit’s pro-vaccination stance hasn’t always been easy, however. He acknowledged the risks involved. “The anti-vaccination movement is politics, and it’s mean, personal and ugly,” he said. “But this is the business I’ve chosen.”

There was a time when the FBI visited Offit’s home to tell him he appeared on an “extermination list” because of his stance on vaccines. The FBI and local police kept an eye on him, his home and family. “I don’t see myself as a victim,” he stressed. “This is the business I’ve chosen. It actually was a good experience knowing the FBI and police were involved and watching.”

Today, Offit said, the goal of the Covid vaccine is to keep people out of the hospital and morgue. The CDC recommends vaccines for those 75 years of age and older, those with high-risk medical conditions, those who are immuno-compromised and those who are pregnant. He believes those are the four groups that should be focused on as long as the virus circulates.

“The scientific process is just that, a process where we learn as we go,” he wrote in his book “Tell Me When It’s Over.”

“As treatments evolve, we learn more and more about how a virus is transmitted and who is at greatest risk. It was all hands on deck in our response to this national tragedy; we saw ourselves as part of the whole. It’s in us. When we see ourselves as part of something greater, we tap into the better angels of our nature.”

Contact the reporter, Karen Knight, at kknight@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Karen Knight is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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