Tonight be sure to watch or record “Vaccines: Calling the Shots,” the latest installment of NOVA on PBS. This documentary looks at parental attitudes toward vaccination and their influences on disease spread. Check your local listings — here in the Philadelphia area it’s scheduled for 10 pm, but in other areas it’s scheduled at 9 pm Eastern. Additionally, there’s the matter of the President’s televised address at 9 pm Eastern, which is likely to push the broadcast later.
We here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia were lucky enough to host award-winning filmmaker Sonya Pemberton (who wrote/produced/directed the film)–and her crew in 2012, when they were filming segments of the documentary. A version aired in 2013 as a 90-minute film titled “Jabbed: Love, Fear, and Vaccines.”
Pemberton interviewed infectious diseases physician, vaccine developer, and College Fellow Paul A. Offit, MD, in our museum, and used images and artifacts from this website, our library, and the Mütter Museum collection. You can see a clip of some of our artifacts (skulls, skeletons ravaged by tuberculosis, and a model of an arm with smallpox pustules) here. Pemberton assured me that she used some of the footage in the American version of the film, but she had to leave out one remarkable scene that appeared in the Australian version.
That scene documents the events of May 17, 2012, when Pemberton hired a crew to extract our 1950s-era iron lung from our building and transport it to Independence Mall. As we suspected it would, rolling an 800-pound medical device across one of the busiest intersections in downtown Philadelphia attracted a sizeable crowd. Clutches of students on field trips to see the Liberty Bell gathered around the machine once it was parked, shouting questions like, “What is that?” “Is that what Michael Jackson slept in?” “Is it a time machine?”
The iron lung excursion was designed to elicit the reaction of old and young to this little-seen artifact from the history of polio. Children’s prior knowledge of polio ran the gamut, from kids who knew what the iron lung was and what disease it was associated with, to those who claimed never to have heard of polio. Dr. Offit answered their (many) questions: what part of the body was affected by polio, whether the disease agent was a virus or bacterium, how long patients had to stay in the iron lung (some just a few days, and others, as Dr. Offit said, first entered the machine as children and lived their entire adult lives in the machine). One of the most common questions was “Is there a chance I can get polio?”
It’s too bad you won’t see this footage, but the documentary is sure to be worthwhile and thought-provoking. The previews and the press event Pemberton, Offit, and others involved with the film conducted last week in Washington, DC, promise an intriguing look at contemporary vaccine attitudes.