Friday 28 October 2016

The Archbishop of Toronto Advises Parents to Protect Their Children From Diphtheria

The leaves are changing, the temperatures are cooling down, and once again it's time to get your flu shot. The seasonal influenza vaccination has been promoted for many years by public health agencies in order to lessen the impacts of the illness on individuals and on the country.

In the 1920s and 1930s, health officials were working to eradicate another disease: diphtheria. Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial disease that primarily affects the upper respiratory system and kills 5-10% of those who contract it, primarily children. The bacteria that causes the disease was first identified in 1883. By the 1890s, an antitoxin was developed which was able to treat the illness. However, the cure wasn't always available or affordable. There were situations when doctors were forced to make tough decisions if sufficient quantities of antitoxin were unavailable, or when there was a race against time to deliver it to remote locations.  A preventive solution was needed.

Starting in 1923, a vaccine known as Toxoid was developed at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The University of Toronto's Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories, which had been producing the antitoxin, was the first to field test the vaccine and establish its effectiveness. By the late 1920s the campaign had started to vaccinate children.

An example of a billboard produced by the Toronto Diphtheria Committee in the early 1930s.

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Archbishop McNeil Fonds

Archbishop McNeil was asked for and gave his support along with other religious leaders. Vaccination clinics opened in three city parishes, and Archbishop McNeil published a letter urging parents to participate in the program.

"To Our Catholic Parents of Toronto:

"In Safeguarding children of pre-school age from the danger of diphtheria many agencies are co-operating with the Department of Public Health. This dread disease is not now nearly as common as it was a few years ago because means have been found to do for it what vaccination did for smallpox.

"In the case of Diphtheria the preventive treament (Toxoid) is harmless and painless. Three visits to a clinic, at intervals of three weeks, suffice. God has blessed your homes with children and placed on you the duty of care for their health and lives.

"I therefore advise you to avail yourselves of the opportunity to protect them against the dangers of diphtheria by taking them to one or other of the places named on next page. Millions of young children have been inoculated against diphtheria throughout the world and it is known to be without risk.

Invoking the blessing of God on their young lives,

Neil McNeil, Archbishop of Toronto."

1 November 1933
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Archbishop McNeil Fonds

Due to vaccination and education efforts, by the mid 1930s, incidence of and deaths from diphtheria decreased significantly. In Toronto, 1929 saw 1022 cases and 64 deaths, but in 1933 there were only 56 cases and 5 deaths.

Diphtheria cases and deaths in Toronto, 1929-1933.

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The World Health Organization reports that in 2015 there were only 3 cases of diphtheria in all of Canada. 

For more about the history of diphtheria in Canada, view the Canadian Museum of Healthcare's online exhibit on Vaccines and Immunization.

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