11 Jul 2014

Quarantine Tent looks to the past in the discussion about vaccines

By Pippa Wysong

When it comes to communicating science, talking to people in-person is still a valid approach. Often getting an idea or information across is about the experience, and interacting with real people.

The Quarantine Tent is an experience. Here, visitors meet people transported from the past who have vaccine-preventable diseases from an era before vaccines were available.

At the Quarantine Tent, volunteers play the roles of diseases vaccination can now prevent. Pippa Wysong photo.
With vaccination rates dropping, diseases such as whooping cough and measles that were once tamed in populations are starting to make a come-back. And for some people, these diseases have debilitating long-term effects. Many of today’s parents don’t have the context, in terms of history, as to what the risks of these diseases mean in terms of a non-vaccinated population.

The Tent was first presented at Canada’s biggest, nation-wide science festival, Science Rendezvous in 2013 at the University of Toronto location where the actors (mostly medical students) and I interacted with over 500 visitors to the tent. As of July 2014, the Tent has now been to two Science Rendezvous festivals, was invited to set-up at a 100th anniversary fair put on by Sanofi-Pasteur on the historic Connaught Laboratories property, and hosted by the Hamilton Public Health Services for the city’s Open Streets festival.

At the Tent you can meet smallpox. He’s 20, from 1921, and the blisters on his face and hands look terrible. He contracted the disease in Ottawa when he was visiting family during an outbreak. He lost several family members there to smallpox, including his father and younger brother. That year, Ottawa saw 1,352 cases, and 30%-50% of non-vaccinated people who got smallpox died.

The last case in Canada occurred in 1967 from someone returning from Brazil. A success story of vaccination, globally smallpox was eliminated in 1979.

Or meet diphtheria. She is 19 and from 1913 when there was an outbreak in Toronto. She‘ll tell you how she lost her kid sister from the disease just a few days ago, how a younger brother is struggling, and will describe the symptoms of “The Strangling Disease”.

In the 1920s, diphtheria killed 15% of children between 2 and 14 every year. Until 1920, about 12,000 cases and 1,000 deaths occurred each year in Canada (those numbers would be bigger with today’s population). After the vaccine was introduced, diphtheria deaths and incidence fell sharply and major cities, for the first time, reported zero cases by the mid 1930s.

The Quarantine Tent also features polio, HPV, measles, 1918 flu and whooping cough. My grandfather, Dr. Gordon Bates was a physician and national public health activist from WW-I through to the 1970s who treated these diseases and saw the havoc they wreaked. The inspiration for the Tent came from the stories of old that I grew up with, and the education bug is probably inherited.

Vaccines have been an incredible success story in terms of reducing the incidence of these diseases. Unfortunately, growing numbers of people not vaccinating their children – largely because they don’t know how devastating these diseases, unchecked, really can be. People from the past will tell you about seeing loved one or friends getting sick, dying or developing disabilities from these diseases. Ever hear of the permanent hearing loss caused by ‘measles ear’? Serious complications occur in upwards of 10% of measles cases.

Or, they have been misinformed about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, both challenging things to communicate to people who don’t understand statistics. A simple message from the Tent is ‘what does society look like without vaccines’?

Or, they’re worried about ingredients in vaccines (which were all tested for safety before being added, by the way). Formaldehyde sounds scary. But the amount in a vaccine is far less than what your own body produces, and 600 times less than what occurs in a pear (it’s a natural metabolite), and is easily cleared by the body. With many things, it’s the quantity that makes the poison and the amounts naturally made by your body and in vaccines are miniscule.

By the way, there are over 12,000 peer-reviewed studies in the medical literature on vaccines, population effects, long-term effects, safety and more. Knowledge is constantly increasing.

No medical treatment is 100% effective or 100% safe, and that’s another difficult concept to communicate. People would like zero risk, but that’s not possible. Surgery and headache remedies have risks too, but most of us benefit from them. A risk that is ‘rare’ is difficult to communicate because people think ‘what if I’m that one?’. So, turn that around to how ‘common’ the risks are if diseases are unchecked -- and suddenly a ‘rare’ risk looks better.

There is always someone out there for whom a treatment doesn’t quite do the job, or who experiences a bad side effect. But looking at it from a population point of view, the treatments are far safer and beneficial than having masses of people suffering the condition.

All these diseases (except smallpox) are still around, and if vaccination rates keep dropping, could make a serious come back. All of them.

So, vaccines, why bother? Take a trip to the past to find out.


Sowpath das said...

nice post

Linda Fairy said...

The Quarantine tent is such an amazing project and experience. I have been to a humanitarian trip in Africa, and the experience was almost the same to the Quarantine tent. We used some pretty resourceful solar power tents that I think can be useful to anyone taking part in the Quarantine tent. See some unique examples here: http://hikingmastery.com/top-pick/best-solar-power-tent.html