Public Health

Restoring trust in vaccines

Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, one’s aspirations are to either pitch for the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, however, threw a curve ball when he decided at a young age to be a physician scientist who studies tropical diseases and vaccines. 

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As an adolescent, Dr. Hotez—dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of Pediatrics and Molecular & Virology and Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston—could be found sampling stagnant water from the small brook near his home and bringing it back to his bedroom laboratory.

He spent a good part of his youth peering through a microscope while carrying a worn paperback copy of Hunting with a Microscope by Gaylord Johnson, Maurice Bleifeld and Joel Beller.

“I had an unusual background in that even when I was a teenager and adolescent, I had a fascination with microscopes and tropical and parasitic diseases,” he says.

His unique path took flight as an undergraduate at Yale University when he learned a Rockefeller University program that would allow him to complete simultaneous PhD and MD studies with Cornell Medical College to become a physician-scientist working on parasitic infections.

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At the Rockefeller University library, he “read the paper called ‘Hookworm Infection: The Great Infection of Mankind,’” which led him on a hunt through literature for more information. To his “astonishment, almost no molecular work had ever been done on hookworms.” This was his in.

It was a great way to make a public health impact based on his science “to work on a parasite of tremendous public health importance” that affects “hundreds of millions of people and to be one of the first to apply molecular biology to the study of this parasite,” says Dr. Hotez.

He also realized that some of his molecular discoveries could be potential vaccine candidates, which caused him to become “really enamored with the idea of developing molecular vaccines for hookworm.” Thirty years later, it “has resulted in the first series of clinical trials for that vaccine, and now several other vaccines for parasitic diseases,” he explains.

“I thought this would be the ideal career to become a pediatric infectious disease physician scientist with a focus on vaccines. And that’s ultimately what I became,” says Dr. Hotez.

Rise of anti-vaccine movement

Dr. Hotez met his wife, Ann, while attending Rockefeller. Their oldest son, Matt, was born during his pediatrics residency at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Children’s Service and Harvard Medical School.

Shortly after moving to New Haven, Connecticut, after his residency to complete his pediatric infectious diseases and molecular parasitology postdoctoral fellowship at Yale, Dr. Hotez and his wife welcomed their second child, a daughter named Emy.

With an ideal job at Yale and a roof over their heads, the Hotez family had everything worked out. However, their lives would change drastically after the birth of their third child, Rachel, in 1992. Dr. Hotez’s commitment to enhancing the public conversation on vaccines would also take a stronger turn.

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At 19 months old, little Rachel was diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, also known as PDD-NOS, which was later replaced with the more universal term “autism spectrum disorder.” After Rachel, Dr. Hotez and Ann welcomed a fourth child, a son name Daniel.

As Rachel grew up, Dr. Hotez witnessed the rise of a powerful—and seemingly unstoppable—anti-vaccine community attempting to connect vaccines with autism. Yet he never thought of this as the cause of her autism.

Read this story in its entirety as featured in the fall issue of AMA Moving Medicine.