First TB, now Covid... it’s no wonder we’re queueing up to get vaccinated

That first successful vaccination against TB took place 100 years ago tomorrow, (Sunday July 18th) — and the BCG went on to save countless lives around the world, and is still doing so today, says John Dolan
First TB, now Covid... it’s no wonder we’re queueing up to get vaccinated

President Sean T. O’Kelly meets a patient as he opens a 50-bed tuberculosis ‘preventorium’ at St Raphael’s, Montenotte, Cork, in 1948 — it later became the base for the Cope Foundation.

ON July 18, 1921, two French doctors administered an oral vaccine to a newborn baby at the Charité Hospital in Paris,

The poor child’s mother had died of tuberculosis only hours after giving birth, and the only other person the baby had been in contact with, its grandmother, also had the potentially deadly disease.

The child — whose name has been lost in the mists of time — faced a similar tragic fate to its mother lying in the hospital morgue.

The Frenchmen, Benjamin Weill-Halle and Raymond Turpin, took a chance with a vaccine that had shown some success in defeating tuberculosis. It worked — the child never developed any symptom of the disease.

The vaccine was called Bacillus Calmette-Guérin — after its French inventors, Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin. It came to be known as BCG.

That first successful vaccination against TB took place 100 years ago tomorrow — and the BCG went on to save countless lives around the world, and is still doing so today.

The other day, I had my second Pfizer jab against another potentially fatal disease, Covid-19 (and no, I didn’t require a plaster this time!). Just like with TB, vaccines will assuredly eradicate the threat of Covid-19 — among those of us fortunate to live in western countries at least.

We are told the take-up of the Covid jab has been huge in Ireland, among the largest of any country. It is not a surprise when you see the success of vaccinations over such a long period. In fact, the only wonder is why ‘vaccine hesitancy’ is still a thing, among even a small cohort of people...

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In the space of 18 months, Covid-19 has devastated the planet, claiming four million lives — 5,000 of them in Ireland.

The remarkably swift emergence of a number of vaccines to combat it is testament to the advances of modern science, allied with healthcare systems which have managed to get the vaccines into so many arms so quickly.

In contrast, tuberculosis claimed multiple millions of lives across the planet for thousands of years, before it could finally be stopped in its tracks by the ingenuity of two Frenchmen a century ago.

Unlike Covid, TB had no respect for youth and vitality, targeting healthy young adults in the prime of their lives.

Stone Age skeletons from 500,000 years ago show evidence of TB, while some of the mummified pharaohs of ancient Egypt were killed by the same bacterium.

By the 18th century, with the emergence of cramped towns and cities, it could spread far easier. One of every four deaths recorded in parish registries from England at the end of that century was attributed to the disease.

By the start of the 19th century, TB is thought to have killed one in seven of all people that had ever lived. It was particularly bad in Ireland in the 19th and early 20th centuries. From the 1880s to the 1950s, it was the primary cause of death in Ireland. TB is estimated to have claimed more than 43,000 deaths in this country between 1939 and 1949 alone.

A BCG vaccination poster from the 1950s Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland
A BCG vaccination poster from the 1950s Image courtesy of National Library of Ireland

Whole families were wiped out by it, and often it was the earners who died, leaving the very young and very old without support.

I note from my own family tree that my great great grandmother, Winifred Brann, died of TB in her mid-forties in Woodstock Lodge, Dublin, in 1890.

Consumption was the layman’s name for the disease; graphically describing the effects — the victim being ‘consumed’ by weight loss and breathlessness.

Sanatoriums like Heatherside in Buttevant, Co Cork, which opened in 1919, tried to treat sufferers, but until the vaccine could be rolled out, there was no cure, and little hope. Heatherside stayed open until the 1950s, when the last patient transferred to Sarsfields Court near Glanmire, and is currently for sale.

Poet Seán Ó Ríordáin had his life blighted by TB, which had killed his father, and was treated at Heatherside in the late 1930s.

Although he lived to almost 60, his health remained poor, and his diaries include vivid descriptions of the effects of TB, as well as the long periods in recuperation and isolation, not to mention the stigma that was attached to it, and the fear the name drove into people.

Famous people who had their lives cut short by TB included writers George Orwell — who finished 1984 before succumbing to it — DH Lawrence, and Robert Louis Stevenson, poet John Keats, aged just 26, actress Vivien Leigh, and all three of the Bronte sisters within six years of each other.

The fear of TB prompted similar campaigns to ones we saw aimed at keeping Covid at bay.

TB public health awareness campaigns were established by the Women’s National Health Association and Irish Red Cross. Leaflets and posters advocating good respiratory hygiene with respect to coughing, sneezing and spitting were circulated. Railway companies erected signs on platforms and in carriages warning about the dangers of spitting, which had long been associated with passing on TB.

Only science could find a way to defeat this evil illness that stalked the lands — and it did.

Gradually, after that breakthrough 100 years ago tomorrow in a Paris hospital, the BCG vaccine was honed and perfected, and states started to roll them out.

A female Irish doctor is credited with playing a key role in its introduction here.

Dr Pearl Dunlevy was a mainstay of Dublin’s immunisation programme, and in 1937, St Ultan’s Hospital for Infants was the first hospital in Britain and Ireland to introduce the BCG vaccine.

The vaccine was mandatory in Ireland from the 1950s all the way up to 2015, when a global shortage of it brought an end to blanket immunisation, although it is believed a high degree of immunity remains within the population.

The BCG is still the only vaccine licensed against TB, and is still widely used in developing countries. Sadly, the disease still kills more than a million people a year in developing countries, and its elimination is a goal of the World Health Organisation.

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The amount of people in Ireland alone whose lives have been spared from TB is incalculable.

We can be certain that, without the BCG, just about every family would have suffered.

We have all those anxious people for half a century from the 1950s on who trusted the vaccine to thank for virtually eliminating it from our society.

Little wonder that, a few generations on, as our nation faces another terrible disease, we are proving more than willing to offer up our arms and get the jab.

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