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