The Value Of Experience
Sep 13, 2011

This past weekend, I was reminded that New York City lost over 300 firefighters as a result of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.  Prior to this horrible tragedy, new recruits were mentored by the more experienced firefighters during “on the job” training.  However, as a result of the immense loss of knowledge and experience that occurred on that shocking day, the Fire Department has responded to new recruit needs by incorporating more classroom instruction into their training programs, ensuring new firefighters are well prepared prior to arriving on the job.
After learning this, I thought about the recent conversation I had with one of the Every Child By Two Scientific Advisory Board members, Dr. Georges Peter.  The depth and scope of his experience in the field of immunizations is not only impressive, but irreplaceable.   And while Dr. Peter may be officially retired, he remains quite active sharing the knowledge he has gained since graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1964, serving on multiple advisory boards, and holdings the title of Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
There is no doubt that Dr. Peter’s professional input has helped shape immunization policy and practices over the course of the past 47 years.  Yet, even in his retirement, he continues to mentor others and dedicate his life to ensuring that doctors are properly educated and instructed on immunizations.  Clearly, our conversation revealed a man who is humbled by an illustrious career, as well as a man whose depth of knowledge is matched only by his devotion to medicine and his compassion towards children.

 Prevention is something to be proud of.

Dr. Peter didn’t always know he wanted to be a doctor.  He had originally thought he would pursue a career in law.  However, as a result of personal experiences he had as a patient in college, he decided to go into medicine.  Since he had always enjoyed children, and even worked summers as a camp counselor, his interests naturally led him to consider a specialty in pediatrics.
He explains,

“Pediatrics has a wonderful trait in that children are extraordinarily resilient.  And the vast majorities of children get better and have their entire lives ahead of them. It’s a win-win situation.” 

Later, as he developed a fascination for microbiology, an appreciation for antibiotics and a respect for the discovery of penicillin, he saw the value of being able to treat infectious diseases.  Fortunately, during a fellowship in an Infectious Disease department in Boston, he had the opportunity to work with three influential mentors, one of which was a co-founder of one of the Hib vaccines.  This is when he made some key realizations.

“I realized  prevention was obviously something to be proud of.  I always enjoyed talking more about the prevention of diseases than about the diseases themselves.”

After co-authoring a review article on vaccines with one of his mentors, his interest in immunizations took hold – growing, evolving and leading him down a path of significant contribution in the realm of infectious disease.
In 1979, Dr. Peter was appointed to the Committee on Infectious Disease of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).  There he remained as a member for an impressive 21 years.  While it is customary for people to remain on the committee for six years, Dr. Peter’s time was extended when he was asked to be the full-time editor of a special Academy publication in the mid 80s.  That publication, known as The Red Book, has been – and continues to be – a critical source of immunization information that pediatricians and family physicians often refer to as “The Bible”. Overseeing five different editions of The Red Book over the course of 14 years as editor, Dr.Peter admits that this contribution was one of the highlights of his career.

“I knew how many pediatricians used and relied on that book, and I always felt as if I was able to reach out to pediatricians in a very helpful way.  It was a tremendous amount of work, but in the end it was a labor of love.” 

An impressive history of service.

Throughout his career, Dr. Peter became centrally involved in immunization policy and ultimately a liaison member from the AAP to several advisory committees.  His bio includes the following highlights:

  • In 1972, he joined the Brown University faculty and was Professor of Pediatrics from 1984 to 2005 and since 2006 has been Professor Emeritus.
  • From 1976 to 2004, he was the founding Director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the Rhode Island Hospital/Hasbro Children’s Hospital.
  • In 1988 to 1990, he served a term on the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and from 1998-2004 he served as Chairman.
  • From 1991-1997, he served as liaison to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC).
  • In 1994 he chaired the Advisory Commission on Childhood Vaccines.
  • From 1993-1995, he was President of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (PIDS).
  • From  1999 – 2001, he served as member of the Council of the Infectious Disease Society of America.
  • Since 1998, he has served on as Steering Committee member of the National Network for Immunization Information.
  • From 1992-1997, he was a member of the initial American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) Sub-Board in Pediatric Infectious Diseases
  • From its inception in 1981 until 2002, he was a member of the editorial board of the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal (PIDJ), serving as the founding editor of “Q & A” from 1985-2002.
  • From 2005 to 2008 he was a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) of the World Health Organization for vaccines and immunization.
  • Since 2006 he has been Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
  • In 2007, he was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases.
  • He currently chairs the Continuing Medical Education committee.

Obviously, in these diverse roles Dr. Peter has been intricately involved in general policy issues related to vaccines, as well as an influential voice helping to develop critical immunization practices.

 “My active role in federal policy was very rewarding and interesting to me.  I had an interest in government while in college, thinking I had wanted to be a lawyer.  Then I realized that perhaps I was coming full circle.  My initial interest in government had now come to fruition through my involvement in pediatrics and infectious disease.”

Dr. Peter explains that serving as the Chairman of NVAC  was also quite gratifying, but it was fulfilling in a different kind of way than his contributions to The Red BookHe talks about how important it has been to feel as though he is making a significant contribution to immunization advocacy.

 “It is impossible not to be an advocate for vaccines when you work with vaccines and know the good they do.  As the 90’s progressed, we became faced with a public that was becoming, in some cases, skeptical, which required more and more advocacy activity. This has been a disappointment to me because vaccines have been such a tremendous influence.  For instance, when the CDC assessed the greatest public health accomplishments of the 20th century, the leading one in terms of lives saved and lives benefited was clean and safe water.  The second was vaccines. I think that speaks to just what we have been able to accomplish.” 

In looking towards the future, Dr. Peter recognized the ongoing importance of public health and the commitment that doctors, like himself, have to our society.

“It’s a public health responsiblity to provide the public with the best possible information and the best possible tools for preventing disease.  And I think it’s important that we make that commitment in our society as we have for years.  Organizations like the Word Health Organization (WHO) nationally, and the CDC in the U.S. are committed to preventing disease and that requires education.  I believe that the CDC is becoming increasingly effective at doing this.”

Dr. Peter has authored or co-authored approximately 175 publications, including original peer-review papers (85), review articles and book chapters. Yet, even in retirement, Dr. Peter is committed to doing more.

“I hope that in the future I can continue to be active in the field of vaccine policy.  I’m very willing to help and I know how important it is.”  

We thank Dr. Peter for volunteering to serve on the Every Child By Two Scientific Advisory Board.  In the first part of this interview, we’ve introduced  Dr. Peter’s extensive knowledge and far-reaching contributions.  Be sure to check back for Part Two of this interview when Dr. Peter responds to questions of vaccine safety, public skepticism, the influence of the media, and the impact of disease outbreaks in today’s society.

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