Tag Archives: vaccine

COVID-19 vaccination: What we can learn from the great polio vaccine heist of 1959



In a pandemic, vaccines are in very high demand, and this threatens their supply.
(Shutterstock)

Paula Larsson, University of Oxford

We find ourselves at a precarious time in global health. Many people are anxiously awaiting their turn to receive a vaccine for COVID-19, yet roll-out is slow and disorganized, with many countries facing supply shortages.

The conditions are ripe for opportunists to exploit the situation. Reports of unethical line-jumping by wealthy elites have started to surface, while others warn of the potential for a black-market trade in vaccines.

This isn’t the first time people have waited anxiously for a vaccine. The looking-glass of history reveals the uneasiness of emotion that accompanies moments like these, as well as the dark consequences that can arise when evil-doers take advantage of them.

One case in particular stands out as an important lesson for today: when thousands of vaccine doses were stolen by armed men during a supply shortage in 1959.

The polio epidemic

It was the summer of 1959, when the last great epidemic of poliomyelitis swept across Canada. Québec saw the most cases that year, with the newspapers reporting over a thousand cases and 88 deaths.

Although the health authorities in Montréal warned the public about the seriousness of the summer epidemic, they also begged the populace to remain calm. This was far from comforting for parents who feared for their children.

Polio infection could cause permanent paralysis and was deadly in five per cent of cases. Montréalers rushed to the vaccine clinics, sometimes waiting for hours in the rain.

Vaccine production in Canada was limited to only two laboratories, with the majority being provided by Connaught Labs at the University of Toronto. This put intense pressure on vaccine supplies and Québec, like the rest of North America, soon faced a vaccine shortage.

Three newspaper photos showing people lining up
Headline images showing the lone lines of people waiting to get a Salk vaccine. ‘The Montreal Gazette,’ Aug. 11, 1959.
The Montreal Gazette

A planned robbery

By August, Montréal was waiting desperately for more vaccines. It was a great relief when a huge shipment of the cherry-red vials arrived from Connaught Labs at the end of the month. The supply was enough to cover the city, and the surplus was planned for redistribution across the province.

Yet the redistribution never came to pass. One man by the name of Jean Paul Robinson, a temporary vaccine worker, had found the circumstances too enticing. Robinson had been tasked with running vials between the various clinics. He knew there was a shortage and that people were desperate. He also knew where the main supply of vaccine was stored: at the Microbiology Institute in the University of Montréal.

At 3 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1959, Robinson and two accomplices broke into the university armed with revolvers. They first locked the night guard in a cage with 500 lab monkeys. The thieves then broke the lock on the massive refrigerator, looted all the cases of the vaccine and stole the guard’s car as the getaway vehicle. In the end, they made away with 75,000 vials, valued at $50,000 (equivalent to almost $500,000 today). Robinson rented an empty apartment building and stashed his prize.

The crime shocked the country. The next day, the city announced it had completely run out of its vaccine supplies. Reporters seized on the situation, publishing reports of desperate mothers turned away from vaccine clinics in vain.

The provincial police were called in, and a special four-man team of investigators was assembled. They began by interviewing the hapless night guard. He couldn’t identify the culprits — who had been wearing nylon leggings over their faces — but he did overhear them speak about transporting the vaccines. The conversation provided the only lead: it seemed that at least one of the men had been “familiar with medical terms.”

The police soon brought in a medical student for questioning. By the next day, they had seized a supply of fresh vaccine from the shelves of a Pont-Viau drug store. The confiscated vials displayed the same serial number as the missing supply. Yet questioning both the medical student and the druggist led the police nowhere, and over the next few days, all leads ran dry. Worse yet, it seemed that the city was facing an upswing in infections, with another 36 patients admitted to hospital.

Black and white photograph of children in a row of hospital beds with an attending nurse.
The widespread application of the polio vaccine in the 1950s and ‘60s helped bring polio under control in the early 1970s. Canada was certified ‘polio free’ in 1994. This image of polio patients was taken in September 1947 in Edmonton, Alta.
(Canadian Public Health Association)

Risk and capture

Meanwhile, Robinson was trying to figure out what to do with his ill-gotten supply of vaccine. Keeping the product cold was a difficult task — if left unrefrigerated for too long, the vaccine would be useless. He filled the refrigerator (saving one shelf for beer), while the rest of the cases were simply left on the floor at room temperature. Although he had been lucky to sell 299 vials for a tidy sum of $500 to the druggist at Pont-Viau, dispensing with the rest of the vaccine was too risky.

Taking a chance that the police were more interested in recovering the vials than catching the culprit, Robinson placed a call to the public police line. Posing as a concerned citizen, he declared that he had seen a large amount of suspicious cases labelled “Connaught Laboratories” being loaded out of a car on St. Hubert Street in the East End.

The police quickly discovered the missing cases of vaccine, but before they could be used, the vaccines would need to be tested thoroughly. This process could take up to two months, meaning the vials could not be used despite the epidemic. Fresh shipments of the vaccine were not planned to arrive for a few more weeks.

The public met the outcome of the investigation with outrage, with the Montréal Star going so far as to speculate that the police had made a deal with the guilty parties in order to recover the vaccine. Truly, it declared, “in the history of justice in Canada, this case must be unprecedented.” The stolen vaccines were eventually cleared for general use in October.

For their part, the police were far from done investigating. They soon turned their attention to identifying the culprit. They discovered that the man who had provided the police tip was also the man who had sold the Pont-Viau druggist his 299 vials. Evidence continued to mount against Robinson when the janitor of the apartment building identified him. After denying all charges, Robinson fled. He was discovered three weeks later hiding out in a small shed on an “isolated backroad farm.”

Newspaper front page BANDITS TAKE POLIO VACCINE IN BIZARRE LABORATORY RAID
The vaccine heist of 1959 shocked the Canadian public and made headlines across the country. ‘Victoria Daily Times,’ Aug. 31, 1959.
(Victoria Daily Times)

‘Beyond reasonable doubt’

Prosecuting Robinson turned out to be a much harder task, and the case eventually fell apart. Although one of his accomplices had originally identified Jean Paul Robinson as the mastermind of the heist, when the trial came around two years later, the witness recanted his original statement (he would later be charged with perjury).

Robinson himself proved imperturbable during courtroom interrogations. He painted himself a public-spirited citizen who had simply tried to “retrieve” the stolen vaccines from the true criminal mastermind: a mysterious man by the name of Bob. Robinson claimed that Bob had set the whole thing up before he had disappeared and escaped justice. The judge eventually ruled that although Robinson’s story was “strange and a little far-fetched,” in the end, “the Crown had not proven a case beyond a reasonable doubt” and he was acquitted.

As millions of people worldwide anxiously await the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, this case warns of the possible consequences of disorganized and poorly planned vaccine programs. Those looking to profit from mistakes, shortages and desperation are out there, and it is important that policy makers keep this in mind as vaccination programs are rolled out.The Conversation

Paula Larsson, Doctoral Student, Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The First Vaccine



From cow pox to mumps: people have always had a problem with vaccination



© Wellcome Collection, CC BY-SA

Sally Frampton, University of Oxford

A recent surge in mumps among young adults in the UK has been linked to the 1998 MMR vaccine scare, when a now-discredited medical paper authored by Andrew Wakefield suggested a connection between the vaccine and the development of autism. The publication of the paper led many parents to refuse the vaccine for their child.

The effect of Wakefield’s paper is still deeply felt. Indeed, every week seems to bring news of an unfolding controversy about vaccination. In the UK an alarming decline in childhood vaccination rates has been recorded. Vaccine scepticism seems to be increasing – a fitting testament to these troubling times, when distrust of science and expertise permeate.

Social media is often pinpointed as part of the problem. The ease with which ideas and information about vaccination are spread on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms is causing concern. As one medical journalist observed in 2019: “Lies spread through social media have helped demonise one of the safest and most effective interventions in the history of medicine.”

Social media has undoubtedly changed the way information about vaccination is engaged with. But the media-driven nature of the debate isn’t actually that new. When vaccination began at the end of the 18th century, it quickly became fodder for commentators.

In the 1790s, the surgeon Edward Jenner had confirmed through a number of experimental procedures on patients that exposure to cowpox pustules – symptoms of a disease of cows’ udders which in humans resembles mild smallpox – could confer immunity to smallpox. Following the publication of his results in 1798, vaccination came into widespread use.

With it came immediate unease and distrust. Satirists like James Gillray capitalised upon rumours that inserting cowpox pustules into the skin might cause one to sprout cow horns, a fear which had its roots in religious and cultural stigma surrounding the pollution of blood with animal matter.

James Gillray: Edward Jenner vaccinating patients against smallpox.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Images like Gillray’s were an early indicator of the ability of vaccination to capture the public imagination in a way few other medical developments would over the ensuing decades. This only intensified in the mid-19th century, when the Compulsory Vaccination Act of 1853 decreed that all babies should be vaccinated. Compulsory vaccination aroused accusations that personal liberty was under threat. In its wake, resistance to vaccination ramped up considerably.

Victorian vaccination

Vaccine hesitancy was amplified by the tumultuous world of print which characterised the Victorian age.

Improved printing technologies and lower prices gave rise to a rapid increase in the number of periodicals and newspapers available. Information was democratised, as cheap papers and periodicals became accessible to women and the working classes. Medical and health issues were mined by journalists for their dramatic content, and tropes of the vaccination debate we see today were given shape by the information revolution of the late 19th century.

Indeed, it was during this time that the polarisation between “pro” and “anti” vaccination camps solidified. Use of the phrase “anti-vaccination” rocketed at the end of the 19th century. Pamphlets and magazines sprung up in opposition to its use, claiming that vaccination was a dangerous, toxic procedure that was being thrust upon society’s most vulnerable citizens: children.

The not so catchily named National Anti-Compulsory-Vaccination Reporter, a magazine which began in 1876, sold hundreds of copies every month. The paper revelled in its radicalism, its opening editorial announcing:

As sound-hearted and enlightened Anti-Vaccinators, it is our bounden duty, and should be our steady and constant aim, to work towards the complete destruction of Medical Despotism.

Meanwhile, humour publications such as Punch and Moonshine skewered organisations like the Anti-Vaccination League for their zealotry and irrationality. In an of age of self-professed scientific medicine, the movement’s association with radical religious beliefs and other non-conforming lifestyle choices, such as vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol, made it a target for lampoonery.

An illustration in Punch, 1872. ‘A snobbish mother resistant to her daughter’s doctor using a vaccine from their neighbour’s child.’
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

A polarised debate

Anti-vaccination publications believed they were deliberately excluded from a press that was in the pocket of the state and who sought to suppress the true dangers of vaccination. Publications such as The Times had become the gatekeepers of public opinion – in 1887 the paper claimed to have suffered from “an epidemic of letters about vaccination”. But anti-vaccinators lambasted newspaper editors as “shamelessly unprincipled and venal” for refusing to publish that correspondence which was critical of vaccination.

This is an accusation that has its echoes in conspiracy theories that continue today. The prominent American anti-vaccine organisation Children’s Health Defense has denounced the mainstream media for being under the thumb of Big Pharma and ignoring the voices of those harmed by vaccines.

As this shows, there has always been a potency to the vaccination debate few other medical practices generate. The provocative issue of children’s health at the heart of it, and the tension vaccination evokes between notions of collective responsibility and the freedom to choose what we think best for our bodies has made it an emotive, highly polarised debate that has been brewing since the 19th century. This has always been galvanised by sustained media interest.

But there is a complexity to vaccination that polarisation does not properly unpack. What of, for example, the many people who would not identify as “anti-vax”, but instead form a loose group who are hesitant about vaccines and may delay or choose only some vaccinations?

Social media may amplify division between the two camps, but it builds upon a long history of media outlets constructing it.The Conversation

Sally Frampton, Humanities and Healthcare Fellow, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


A short history of vaccine objection, vaccine cults and conspiracy theories


File 20170630 11661 1db8jxr
Edward Jenner, who pioneered vaccination, and two colleagues (right) seeing off three anti-vaccination opponents, with the dead lying at their feet (1808).
I Cruikshank/Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Ella Stewart-Peters, Flinders University and Catherine Kevin, Flinders University

When we hear phrases like vaccine objection, vaccine refusal and anti-vaxxers, it’s easy to assume these are new labels used in today’s childhood vaccination debates.

But there’s a long history of opposition to childhood vaccination, from when it was introduced in England in 1796 to protect against smallpox. And many of the themes played out more than 200 years ago still resonate today.

For instance, whether childhood vaccination should be compulsory, or whether there should be penalties for not vaccinating, was debated then as it is now.

Throughout the 19th century, anti-vaxxers widely opposed Britain’s compulsory vaccination laws, leading to their effective end in 1907, when it became much easier to be a conscientious objector. Today, the focus in Australia has turned to ‘no jab, no pay’ or ‘no jab, no play’, policies linking childhood vaccination to welfare payments or childcare attendance.

Of course, the methods vaccine objectors use to discuss their position has changed. Today, people share their views on social media, blogs and websites; then, they wrote letters to newspapers for publication, the focus of my research.

Many studies have looked at the role of organised anti-vaccination societies in shaping the vaccination debate. However, “letters to the editor” let us look beyond the inner workings of these societies to show what ordinary people thought about vaccination.

Many of the UK’s larger metropolitan newspapers were wary of publishing letters opposing vaccination, especially those criticising the laws. However, regional newspapers would often publish them.

As part of my research, I looked at more than 1,100 letters to the editor, published in 30 newspapers from south-west England. Here are some of the recurring themes.

Smallpox vaccination a gruesome affair

In 19th century Britain, the only vaccine widely available to the public was against smallpox. Vaccination involved making a series of deep cuts to the arm of the child into which the doctor would insert matter from the wound of a previously vaccinated child.

These open wounds left many children vulnerable to infections, blood poisoning and gangrene. Parents and anti-vaccination campaigners alike described the gruesome scenes that often accompanied the procedure, like this example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette from December 1886:

Some of these poor infants have been borne of pillows for weeks, decaying alive before death ended their sufferings.

Conspiracy theories and vaccine cults

Side-effects were so widespread many parents refused to vaccinate their children. And letters to the editor show they became convinced the medical establishment and the government were aware of the dangers of vaccination.

If this was the case, why was vaccination compulsory? The answer, for many, could be found in a conspiracy theory.

Their letters argued doctors had conned the government into enforcing compulsory vaccination so they could reap the financial benefits. After all, public vaccinators were paid a fee for each child they vaccinated. So people believed compulsory vaccination must have been introduced to maximise doctors’ profits, as this example from the Wiltshire Times in February 1894 shows:

What are the benefits of vaccination? Salaries and bonuses to public vaccinators; these are the benefits; while the individuals who have to endure the operation also have to endure the evils which result from it. Health shattered, lives crippled or destroyed – are these benefits?

Conspiracy theories went further. If doctors knew vaccination could result in infections, then they knew children died from the procedure. As a result, some conspiracy theorists began to argue there was something inherently evil about vaccination. Some saw vaccination as “the mark of the beast”, a ritual perpetuated by a “vaccine cult”. Writing in the Salisbury Times, in December 1903, one critic said:

This is but the prototype of that modern species of doctorcraft, which would have us believe that their highly remunerative invocations of the vaccine god alone avert the utter extermination of the human race by small-pox.

Of course, this is an extreme view. But issues of morality and religion still permeate the anti-vaccination movement today.

Individual rights

For many, the issue of compulsory vaccination was directly related to the rights of the individual. Just like modern anti-vaccination arguments, many people in the 19th century believed compulsory vaccination laws were an incursion into the rights enjoyed by free citizens.

By submitting to the compulsory vaccination laws, a parent was allowing the government to insert itself into the individual home, and take control of a child’s body, something traditionally protected by the parent. Here’s an example from the Royal Cornwall Gazette in April 1899:

[…] civil and religious liberty must of necessity include the right to protect healthy children from calf-lymph defilement […] trust […] cannot be handed over at the demand of a medical tradesunion, or tamely relinquished at the cool request of some reverend rural justice of the peace.

What can we learn by looking at the past?

If anti-vaccination arguments from the past significantly overlap with those presented by their counterparts today, then we can learn about how to deal with anti-vaccination movements in the future.

The ConversationNot only can we see compulsory vaccination laws in Australia could, as some researchers say, be problematic, we can use the history of vaccine opposition to better understand why vaccination remains so controversial for some people.

Ella Stewart-Peters, PhD Candidate in History, Flinders University and Catherine Kevin, Senior Lecturer in Australian History, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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