The following post was written by Pamela Peacock, Museum Curator.
The Museum of Health Care is pleased to announce the opening of a new exhibition, Vaccines and Immunization: Epidemics, Prevention, and Canadian Innovation. Developed with Guest Curator Dr. Christopher Rutty, and funded in part by the Kingston and United Way Community Fund, the Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives, and Sanofi Pasteur, the exhibit uses case studies of diseases that saw significant decreases in the twentieth century because of immunization – smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and whooping cough – to identify the cost of epidemics to society and explore the search for adequate treatment and preventative measures, such as vaccines.
There is significant public debate over the merits and risk of vaccinations, much of which is fueled by inflammatory rhetoric rather than facts and science. This debate has raged ever since the first vaccine for smallpox was proposed by Dr. Edward Jenner in the 1790s and, doubtless, it will continue as new vaccines are developed. What is often sidelined in this debate, however, is the impact of the diseases that vaccines have helped to control and prevent. While risks of vaccines – real or inflated – are highlighted in the debate, the ravages of disease including their mortality rates, symptoms and long-term side-effects are often neglected because the bulk of society no longer connects to the first-hand fear of a growing epidemic. Yet, such epidemics are occurring more frequently in Canada as diseases that were previously well controlled return, in part due to decisions not to get vaccinated. A better understanding of the human, societal, and economic impact of diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and pertussis, and the beneficial effect of vaccination programs should help individuals make more informed choices.
The exhibit focuses particularly on the search for a polio vaccine. Throughout much of history, most people were exposed to polio in their youth creating adult immunity; however, by the early twentieth century improvements in hygiene meant that more and more adults had never been exposed to polio and were vulnerable to the disease. Since cases of polio seemed to increase in the warmer months, fear and anxiety settled over many communities in the summer and early fall. Parents would keep their children close to home and forbid activities, such as swimming in the local pool, that were associated with contracting of polio.
Polio presents initially much like the flu and many people are able to fight it off with only minor symptoms. In some cases, though, the viral infection affects the nerves causing muscle weakness and paralysis; in others, paralysis affects the tongue, throat muscles and diaphragm, leaving the patient at great risk of suffocation.
In the past, for some paralysis was temporary and with rehabilitation therapy full mobility could be restored. Others required braces, canes, or wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. Similarly, for those who suffered through bulbar polio – affecting the respiratory system – the primary treatment was an iron lung. Iron lungs use negative pressure to inflate and deflate the lungs of the patient inside, helping them to get oxygen. The patient’s body is placed inside the iron lung while the head and neck protrude onto a canvas stretcher at one end. When the motor is running, pressure will alternatively build up inside the machine, causing the lungs to become smaller, and then decrease inside the machine, causing the lungs to expand and fill with air. Imagine waking up inside an iron lung, unable to will your limbs – which only yesterday co-operated – to move, unable to speak. Many patients recovered sufficiently to leave the iron lung and return home, but their lives were forever marked by the disease.
The search for a polio vaccine made great strides in the 1940s and 1950s thanks to innovations by a number of researchers. Connaught Laboratories made critical contributions when its scientists discovered a synthetic medium in which to grow the virus and a way to effectively grow large amounts of virus by rocking the cultures. This enabled enough vaccine to be produced to conduct field trials of an inactivated polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1954. North America waited on tenterhooks to hear the results, broadcasted on 12 April 1955. The vaccine was successful at protecting against polio! It should not be underestimated how exciting this news was.With polio largely removed from today’s Canadian society (except, of course, many survivors of the disease), many people might have difficulty understanding why the discovery of a vaccine caused such immense elation without understanding how polio affects the body. Sadly, the world might be able to connect more personally to the fear of polio as the number of cases continues to grow in Syria, where conflict has interrupted vaccination programs.
Closer to home, diseases such as whooping cough, have returned to communities across Canada. In part the resurgence has occurred because many people do not recognize the symptoms of whooping cough and mistake it for bronchitis, and in part because people are choosing not be immunized or are not receiving booster shots to gain adolescent or adult immunity.
The impact of contagious diseases in the 19th and early 20th centuries can sometimes be forgotten because of advances in public health, including immunization programs that have prevented many serious infections in today’s society. Some diseases that had largely disappeared from North American society have been making comebacks in recent years. Such outbreaks are almost entirely preventable when individuals choose to immunize themselves and their children.
Attend our exhibition opening on 27 November 2013 at 6:30pm to learn more about smallpox, diphtheria, polio and pertussis and the search for effective vaccines.