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Walter Orenstein on Vaccines

Walter Orenstein is a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist who also completed a residency in preventive medicine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although I mostly trained in the post-vaccine era, it is easy for me to understand Dr. Walter Orenstein’s quote about Hib disease:

for those trained in pediatrics in the 1970s, Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) was a horror.

He is talking about all of the cases of epiglottitis, bacterial meningitis, and pneumonia that pediatricians routinely saw that were caused by Hib. Just before the first Hib vaccine came out in 1988, just over 250 young children died each year of Hib disease.

While the kids I saw in training were all vaccinated with Hib and didn’t get epiglottitis, the older doctors in the ER always considered the diagnosis whenever we presented a severe case of croup. And there were still notices about the epiglottitis team in the ER, which included an anesthesiologist, and ENT specialist, and a pediatrician.

Dr. Orenstein has witnessed much more than the horrors of Hib though, having worked on smallpox eradication, polio elimination, and measles control at the CDC.

He was also the Director of the United States Immunization Program between 1988 and 2004, when thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines, except some flu shots. More importantly, this was a time when both immunization rates greatly increased and kids got the opportunity to be protected from many more vaccine-preventable diseases than they ever had in the past.

That’s why he was featured and misquoted in Robert F. Kennedy‘s article, Deadly Immunity.

According to transcripts of the meeting, the committee’s chief staffer, Kathleen Stratton, predicted that the IOM would conclude that the evidence was “inadequate to accept or reject a causal relation” between thimerosal and autism. That, she added, was the result “Walt wants” — a reference to Dr. Walter Orenstein, director of the National Immunization Program for the CDC.

He has also been the Associate Director of the Emory Vaccine Program since 2004, except for a three year stint as Deputy Director for Immunization Programs at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Not surprisingly, he has received many awards for his work, including the:

  • Surgeon General’s Exemplary Service Medal
  • Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, Distinguished Service Award
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Excellence in Public Service Award
  • Stanley A. Plotkin Lecture in Vaccinology Awards
  • The Dr. Charles Mérieux Award
  • Charles C. Shepard Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award

Dr. Orenstein was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2006.

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