Asking Questions About Vaccines Does Not Make You Anti-Science

by Godfrey Onime

Robin Peace, MD, Medical Staff President at UNC Health Southeastern, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Robin Peace, MD, Medical Staff President at UNC Health Southeastern, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Ponder this. It is the 15th century and you have a high chance of contracting and dying from a rampant infection. Turns out that you could intentionally infect yourself with a small dose of the contagion, get slightly sick, and become protected for life. Of course, things are not always that simple.  You could get more than just a little sick. You could even die, but 1000 times less likely than if you acquired the infection naturally. Would you infect yourself and beloved family members? I believe I would, and I’ll tell you why.

Long before science knew about bacteria and viruses or that they caused diseases, long before vaccines were even imagined, that exactly was the dilemma that people the world over faced — whether or not to preemptively infect themselves, in hopes of preventing more serious illnesses, or worse, death. Indeed, those were desperate times, with no antibiotics, hospitals, or ICUs.

One vexing affliction for this historical palaver was smallpox, which was rampart in much of recorded history. Not only was it highly infectious, it rendered its victims extremely sick: raging fevers, splinting headaches, searing backaches, crippling fatigue, monstrous skin eruptions, and quite often, death. When it did not quickly and gruesomely kill sufferers, the scourge left them disfigured, not the least with unsightly pockmarks on the face. Little wonder then that many started to intentionally infect themselves and kids with smaller and possibly weaker doses of the infection, which they obtained from the oozing sores on the skins of the afflicted. This practice of using the actual, live bug to self-induce infection is called variolation.  Among those intentionally exposed to smallpox through variolation, about 1-2 in 100 may die. For those who got the infection naturally, about 30 in 100 died. Read more »

Why Most Doctors Don’t Wash Their Hands

by Godfrey Onime

Image of handwashing

At the hospital a couple of years ago, a nurse walked up to me to report that one of my patients was “hysterical.”

“She says to make sure Dr. X never returns to her room,” the nurse explained. I was the patient’s internist and Dr. X the surgeon who had operated on her. Apparently, the surgeon had not washed his hands — before and after touching the dressing on her wound.

I braced myself as I went to see the patient in hopes of placating her. I knew it can be difficult persuading another surgeon to take over the case of a patient they had not operated on, as they may think such patient was a troublemaker.

The patient was laying in bed and talking angrily on the phone. I had seen her the previous day, before her surgery, but not yet on that morning.  In her early 70s, she looked younger and fit. I introduced myself again, more out of habit than her not remembering who I was. I asked what the matter was, and she recounted essentially what the nurse had said.

“I kept watching him and flinching as he examined me and then lifted the bloody dressing on my wound to take a look.  I wanted so bad to say something, but I was afraid he might get mad and do something crazy to me, like purposely infecting my wound. Now that I think about it, I should have told him right to his face.”

Wanting to give the surgeon the benefit of the doubt, I reasoned, “Could he have used the disinfectant hand-rub solution outside the room?” Read more »