We must never forget the importance of vaccines

Sally Greenberg

By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer

I have written before about being born into a family that experienced the agony of the polio epidemic. My uncle Roger Joseph’s battle with the disease—including his diagnosis in 1951 by my father, a practicing internist—devastated our entire family. My uncle, a golden boy, popular, handsome, brilliant, and kind, graduated from the University of Minnesota and Harvard Law School; he also won a silver star for his military service in WW2. Married with three daughters, he had a thriving law practice when he fell ill.

His case was severe and rendered him paralyzed. Confined to an Iron Lung for two years, the device was designed to stimulate breathing in patients whose lungs no longer functioned. With a great deal of therapy, my Uncle Roger, by then quadriplegic, moved to a motorized wheelchair that he ended up using for the rest of his life. He doted on his children, moved in with my grandmother, slept in a rocking bed to facilitate his breathing, and had an attendant on duty 24 hours a day. When we visited my grandmother, we visited our uncle too. He also came to our home for Sunday dinners, and I recall him taking breaths carefully before speaking, and when he did, he was wry and funny. He also had to learn to write again with his non-dominant hand. My mother, who had always idolized him, marveled at how his handwriting never changed.

My uncle lived 16 years with polio, thanks to a loving family, modern medicine, financial wherewithal, his wheelchair, and his attendant. Paralyzed from the neck down, he nonetheless spent these years productively, doting on his daughters, going to work every day, and attending baseball games, and even traveling abroad.

In 1954, U.S. physician Jonas Salk developed a vaccine to prevent the disease. The polio vaccine was first tested on 1.6 million children in Canada, Finland, and the United States before it was used more broadly. By 1957, annual cases had dropped from 58,000 to 5,600, and by 1961, only 161 cases remained. Had my uncle had access to the vaccine, he never would have gotten sick.

The powerful lessons about vaccines weren’t lost on anyone in my family. This explains why I feel obligated to confront head-on the dishonesty and lies of the anti-vaxxers. I have traveled to the CDC and the FDA numerous times to testify in support of childhood and adult vaccinations, and each time have been confronted by vaccine deniers.

Here’s the problem: Those of us with memories of family members with devastating diseases like polio are aging out. We are victims of our own success in wiping out childhood diseases. Younger generations have now been vaccinated for polio, measles, rubella, mumps, influenza, diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough so they do not know the trauma these illnesses caused to millions of families. Come to think of it, I’m in that category myself.

Florence Kelley, who in 1899 launched the National Consumers League, wrote in the 1880s about the dark days of “diphtheria”; she lost three young siblings to the disease, which sent her mother into lifelong depression. But I have never known anyone with diphtheria, thanks to vaccines.

My 27-year-old son never had measles—nor any of his friends. But my siblings and I all did, along with rubella, chicken pox, and the mumps. Measles alone is far more serious than often understood. In 2021 alone it killed nearly 128,000 unvaccinated children under age 5 around the world.

All of which leads me to the reason I have written this blog. Each year, Uncle Roger’s daughters proudly award the Roger E. Joseph Prize, (created by my Uncle Burton Joseph, in honor of his brother and their dad) and for this year’s prize, my cousin Linda produced a video; it tells a compelling story of her experience with her father’s illness. Hebrew Union College, which graduates reform rabbis, hosts the awards. Honorees have included Rosa Parks, Henry Louis Gates, Morris Dees, Sara Bloomfield, and the Center for Reproductive Rights. A complete list is at the link below.

Indeed, the Roger E. Joseph Prize is a point of immense pride for our family, but it also gives us the opportunity to talk about diseases like polio and, now Covid, and the critical importance of the vaccines developed to prevent them.

How truly fortunate we are to have a medical establishment that has helped to prevent families from suffering, the way ours did, when a loved one falls ill from an infectious disease.

As the anti-vaccine movement grows each year—a = movement that traffics in conspiracy theories and junk medicine—note Robert Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine crusade, which his own family has denounced in this article published by Politico.

Now more than ever we need to have conversations about the critical importance of vaccines.


NCL Health Policy Director testifies at FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC)

February 28, 2023

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, 202-823-8442

Washington, D.C. – Today, NCL Health Policy Director Robin Strongin testified at the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC). Robin’s full testimony can be found below.

Good afternoon, my name is Robin Strongin and I direct Health Policy for the National Consumers League (NCL).

Founded in 1899 by the renowned social reformer, Florence Kelley, the National Consumers League has long championed vaccines as lifesaving medical interventions.

In fact, Kelley’s support of vaccinations played a key part in mitigating a critical smallpox outbreak towards the end of the 19th century, and her tireless advocacy for immunizations has informed NCL’s bedrock principles for increased access and vaccine confidence.

124 years later, we are honored to persist in our efforts to protect consumers from vaccine preventable illnesses and we extend our gratitude to this committee for the opportunity to present our public comments.

We know that despite decades of effort, no vaccine to protect against RSV disease, in any population, has been authorized, resulting in a very serious unmet need.  The dramaticrise in cases this past Fall was a wake-up call for us as a nation.

As Americans faced the threat of contracting RSV–the flu, pneumonia, and COVID were circulating simultaneously. The difference, of course, is that vaccines for COVID influenza and pneumonia are widely available and many in the most vulnerable communities have embraced these tools to reduce their risk of serious illness and death.

However, the lack of any such tool to protect against RSV made for a frightening reality for Americans already facing serious threats to their respiratory health, especially among the very young and the elderly.

NCL is also concerned with the serious strain these viruses put on our health care system, and its ability to provide quality and timely care for patients. From hospitals running at capacity, to over taxed health care providers and family caregivers, the prolonged burden such an uptick in cases can inflict is not sustainable.

We are encouraged by the continued progress in the development of vaccines to help strengthen our ability to fight back against devastating diseases like RSV.

Ensuring broad and equitable access to these vaccines is an important next step to improving the health of all communities while reducing the high burden these viruses place on our health care system.

NCL cares deeply about the health and well-being of our nation.  We will continue to do our part to educate people about the importance of vaccines and the value they offer consumers–and society as a whole.

Thank You.


About the National Consumers League (NCL)
The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization.  Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad.  For more information, visit nclnet.org.

NCL provided oral testimony to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in support of new pneumococcal vaccine recommendations for adults 65 years of age and older

June 22, 2022

Media contact: National Consumers League – Katie Brown, katie@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832

Washington, DC— On June 22, 2022, NCL’s Health Policy Associate Milena Berhane provided oral testimony to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in support of new pneumococcal vaccine recommendations for adults 65 years of age and older. NCL comments appear below.

Thank you, Dr. Lee. My name is Milena Berhane, and today I am representing the National Consumers League. Since NCL’s founding in 1899 by social reformer Florence Kelley, we have advocated for the critical role immunizations play in the preservation and improvement of public health. We extend our gratitude to this Committee for the opportunity to present public comments.

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), pneumococcal disease is a leading cause of serious illness throughout the world. In the US, nearly 50,000 people die each year from pneumonia. The death rate is even higher in those age 65 years and older. Vaccination is a critical public health measure for preventing disease, hospitalizations, and death, so it is critical that access to the pneumococcal vaccine is expanded.

We are concerned about the lack of clarity surrounding the current ACIP recommendations regarding the pneumococcal vaccine, for adults ages 65 years of age and older. It is critical that the recommendations for this age groups are clear, so that patients and providers are better able to understand who should receive which vaccine, and when. The pneumococcal vaccine will continue to be a safe and effective measure in protecting Americans from disease, and it is imperative that older adults are able to receive them.

Having clear recommendations for adults 65 years of age and older is also critical in addressing health equity issues, especially among older Black and Latinx populations that already face issues in lacking access to health care. Pneumococcal vaccine uptake needs to increase in these populations so that currently existing health disparities are not further exacerbated. Therefore, in order to promote health equity among all older adults and increase vaccination rates, it is critical that clear recommendations are provided for this age group.

The National Consumers League recognizes the extreme importance of immunizations in protecting the health and safety of all Americans, and will continue its efforts to increase vaccine confidence and uptake across lifespan. We look forward to the upcoming recommendations by this committee regarding the pneumococcal vaccine for older adults.

Thank you.


About the National Consumers League (NCL) 

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America’s pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.