The Cutter Incident: Consequences of a Public Health Crisis
Public health innovations have greatly extended and improved life over the past two centuries. However, the journey has not been without missteps, and these mistakes have plausibly affected public confidence in scientific medicine and support for the public health enterprise. We study the Cutter Incident, the worst vaccine disaster in U.S. history, in which the initial release of a polio vaccine in 1955 led over 100,000 children to be vaccinated with live, virulent polio virus. As a result, several hundred children were paralyzed or died. We will use archival data to understand how exposure to the Cutter Incident influenced future vaccination and vaccine equity. We will also use historical newspapers to study how the government and other key actors were held accountable for this incident and how exposure conditioned the diffusion of narratives about scientific medicine and public health through local media. Our ultimate goal is to study the immediate impact of a public health crisis on health and health seeking behavior and leverage our unique newspaper data to show its wider impact on society and policy.
To estimate the impact of exposure to the Cutter Incident we combine exogenous variation in vaccine distribution with novel data. We will compare communities where children were given contaminated vaccines to communities that only received safe vaccines. We will also exploit variation in vaccine-associated (but not vaccine-caused) polio cases. Our first set of outcomes includes health outcomes such as polio vaccination and measles vaccination as well as vaccine equity. Our second set of outcomes come from historical newspapers. We have made signiﬁcant methodological investments to apply advances in deep learning to document layout analysis to extract headlines, articles and images from over ten million relevant pages from local newspapers. We will use natural language processing (NLP) to measure whether the Cutter Incident conditioned how prominent narratives voiced by public figures, syndicated columnists, and other cultural icons diffused into communities. We are particularly interested in sentiments about the trustworthiness and accountability of scientiﬁc medicine and public health.
Supported by the National Science Foundation grant #2049324
More from NBER
In addition to working papers, the NBER disseminates affiliates’ latest findings through a range of free periodicals — the NBER Reporter, the NBER Digest, the Bulletin on Retirement and Disability, the Bulletin on Health, and the Bulletin on Entrepreneurship — as well as online conference reports, video lectures, and interviews.