Sebelius Should Learn From 'Great Vaccine Mess' of 1955

Monday, 04 Nov 2013 07:42 AM

By John Gizzi

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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week told a congressional committee that "I'm responsible" for the HealthCare.gov snafu and asked to be held "accountable for the debacle," but she is unlikely to take the next step that usually follows accepting responsibility: resigning from the Cabinet.

Sebelius "told us she was taking responsibility for the whole situation," Republican Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania told Newsmax shortly after the HHS secretary's Nov. 30 testimony before the House Energy Committee. "And in her responses to the next 10 questions from our committee, she proceeded to assign blame to others: Verizon did this, [Medicare administrator] Marilyn Tavenner did that."

In staying on the job, Sebelius is charting the polar opposite course taken by the first secretary of the federal health department when faced with a debacle.

In 1955, Oveta Culp Hobby resigned as secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare — changed in 1979 to Health and Human Services — after taking full responsibility for a major healthcare foul-up known as the "Great Vaccine Mess."

When she became secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953, Texas businesswoman Hobby was the first head of the new department and the only woman in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's cabinet.

One of Hobby's critical responsibilities was overseeing licensing the laboratories that would produce Dr. Jonas Salk's just-developed vaccine to inoculate people against the dreaded polio virus.

Hobby, who had favored distribution of the vaccine by the states, was overruled, and the $30 million program began running from Washington. Demand for the vaccine quickly overtook production capacity.

Writing about what was clearly the debacle of its day, Harper's Magazine noted in August 1955 that "it was soon evident that vaccine production was neither so large nor so elastic as expected. New York and many other communities had to postpone scheduled inoculation clinics repeatedly because the vaccine had failed to arrive. The World-Telegram & Sun charged that vaccine was being diverted to commercial channels and the 'black market.'"

"Congressmen — mostly Democratic — charged that the Eisenhower administration was failing to make adequate plans to meet the demand for the vaccine, and introduced bills to control the vaccine's distribution," Harper's reported.

Compounding the "Great Vaccine Mess" was the "Cutter Incident." Cutter Laboratories, a 58-year-old, family-owned pharmaceutical company in Berkeley, Calif., was one of several companies that the federal government licensed to produce the Salk vaccine on April 12, 1955.

Two weeks later, Cutter suddenly withdrew its vaccine after reports of thousands of children contracting polio from its product. That June, a congressional investigation concluded that a lack of oversight of Cutter from the National Institutes of Health Laboratories of Biologic Control was largely responsible for the flawed vaccine.

An estimated 120,000 doses of the vaccine contained the live polio virus. According to a 1963 study of the Cutter Incident by medical researchers Neal Nathanson and Alexander Langmuir, 40,000 children developed abortive poliomyelitis, a form of polio that does not involved the central nervous system; 56 developed paralytic poliomyelitis; and five children died from the infection.

Cutter Laboratories faced several lawsuits in the ensuing years, but remains in business today.

Dr. William Sebrell, director of the National Institutes of Health, resigned, as did Hobby. Taking full responsibility for the "Great Vaccine Mess," she resigned from the cabinet in June 1955.

Under her successor, Marion Folsom, “the vaccine supply was equal to demand and the incidence of infantile paralysis had fallen dramatically,” noted historian Gary Reichard in "Politics as Usual: The Age of Truman and Eisenhower."

Hobby returned to her native Houston and her old job as president of the Houston Post, and was a leader in her community. Her taking of responsibility was respected widely, and Eisenhower urged her to consider running for president in 1960.

It is safe to say Sebelius, who probably will stay on the job, is no Oveta Culp Hobby.

Nancy Koehn, a professor of business history at Harvard Business School, told National Public Radio that while someone ultimately will get fired over the Obamacare rollout flaw, "that doesn't negate the fact that we don't have any accountability."

"We're living in a world in which we have forgotten that there are things that are wrong and things that are right and mistakes are made, and it is a right action and socially beneficial to answer for it," Koehn said.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

© 2014 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

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