Did you know that BC has lived through several pandemics? If we didn’t know before, we are all painfully aware now. Below are several of the pandemics that BC has faced throughout the years.
Pandemics are outbreaks of disease that result in serious illness or death of a high percentage of the population. These are global events and are highly contagious in human populations. Epidemics are diseases that affect many people within a community, population, or region.
Cholera is an infectious disease of the intestines, it causes severe watery diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and even death if untreated. It is caused by eating food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium.
Cholera arrived in Canada in 1832 from British immigrants. Luckily since North America was far enough away, it missed the first cholera pandemic that began in 1817. Cholera continued to plague Canada (and the world) and epidemics occurred in 1832, 1934, 1851, 1852 and 1854. Cholera killed at least 20,000 people in Canada. At the time it was feared because no one knew how it was treated, or how it spread. There were attempts to quarantine and isolate but often the disease was already in the community, and these attempts were futile. Luckily in 1854, John Snow (British) proved that cholera was a waterborne disease. This would lead to improved sanitation and water supply systems, helping to prevent the disease’s spread. By the 20th century, Cholera became a lot less common in modernized countries.
Cholera is not yet eradicated across the world. In places where sanitation is lacking, there is little infrastructure, and the health care systems are already weakened, cholera can pop up. Now there are ways to treat Cholera and it is not the death sentence it used to be. The goal is to rehydrate the person, provide them with fluids, antibiotics, and zinc treatments. Canada has very few cases reported yearly. From 1995 to 2004 cases ranged from 1 to 8 people, most reporting contracting the disease while visiting an affected region.
Spanish Flu was a virus that had symptoms that included nausea, aches, lungs filling with bloody fluid, coughing, chills, fever, fatigue. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. No one knows where the disease originated.
The first wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the spring and was mild. The sick experienced flu like symptoms and recovered after several days, the death reports were low. A second wave came in the fall of that year. This wave was highly contagious and deadly, victims could die within hours or days of developing symptoms. For Canadians, our first cases appeared in the Spring of 1918 amongst soldiers in France, and there were outbreaks in training camps near Montreal and Toronto in August. Unfortunately, this disease spread because of increased travel following the First World War. Soldiers returning home would bring the disease across the country and into their home cities without even realizing it.
There was no vaccine to protect against the Spanish Flu and no antibiotics available to treat the infected symptoms. Control efforts were undertaken worldwide, and included isolation, quarantine, increased personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings. Canadian communities adopted different measures to contain the spread. In Alberta, people were required to wear a facemask in public. In Regina, people could be fined for public coughing and sneezing. By 1919 the pandemic had come to an end (but would still occassionally pop up, but not as deadly),those that were infected either died or developed immunity.
The 1918 flu is widely recognized as the most devastating pandemic in history. It is estimated that around 1/3 of the global population became infected (500 million). The mortality rate was higher in those younger than five, 20-40-year old’s and those 65 years and older. The unique feature was that it killed seemingly healthy young adults in the prime of their lives. In response to the Spanish Flu, Canada first established the Department of health in 1919. This was to increase the government’s responsibility to its citizen’s health. The pandemic highlighted the need for highly trained health care professionals, facilities, and medical research in communities. As following the war there was a shortage because most went to serve overseas. Ultimately, Canadas death count was around 55,000 people (with an estimated 4,000 people in BC),with a worldwide count of 50 to 100 million people.
Polio is a contagious viral illness with symptoms that range from very mild (fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, stiffness) to serious and deadly (paralysis, difficulty breathing, and death).
The first known Canadian case occurred in 1910 in Ontario. Polio epidemics continued with peaks in the summer and fall, usually affecting older children and youth. The disease peaked in 1953 with nearly 9,000 cases and 500 deaths, there were an estimated 11,000 people in Canada left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954. The last major polio epidemic in Canada occurred in 1959 with close to 2,000 cases. During outbreaks, schools, playgrounds, and movie theatres were closed to prevent the spread of the disease, and families of the infected were quarantined. Treatment of the sickest often required an iron lung, a large device that forced the chest to breath by encasing the user.
Polio was brought under control by the Salk vaccine (1955) and the Sabin oral vaccine (1962) by the 1970s, and Canada was certified “polio free” in 1994. There is no cure for polio but worldwide we are close to global eradication of the disease.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a condition that is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and attacks the infected persons immune system.
In the early days of the virus, receiving the diagnosis was a death sentence. Now with modern advances in medicine and treatment the virus has turned into a treatable, chronic disease. Unfortunately, that is the case for the western world, and globally this is still a crisis that needs resources and attention.
HIV/AIDS ranks as one of the worst episodes of disease in Canadian history and figures from 2014 how that more than 26,000 people with HIV have died since the beginning of the epidemic. There is still no cure for HIV/AIDS.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is an infectious disease caused by a coronavirus. Canada experienced an outbreak in 2003. The virus was first reported in China in November 2002 and spread to over 20 countries.
Canadas outbreak was largely centered in Toronto, with Ontario declaring SARS a provincial emergency in March 2003. The outbreak caused thousands to quarantine as a preventative measure, although later it was revealed the disease was only infectious once people got sick. The outbreak was largely contained within hospitals. In April 2003, WHO issued an advisory against all non-essential travel to Toronto, and after a week this advisory was lifted. Unfortunately, SARS fuelled a surge in anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiment especially in Toronto and Vancouver.
The legacy of SARS is still with us as we battle with our newest coronavirus, COVID-19. SARS prompted Canadian government to study their public-health response and take new steps in the control of pandemics. Hospitals improved their infection control measures after SARS. Currently there is no vaccination for SARS, however, there have not been any known cases of SARS since 2004.
H1N1 or Swine Flu.
The H1N1 flu virus was first reported in Mexico in February 2009, the first case reported in Canada was on April 26, 2009. By June, the WHO announced a pandemic as it had reached 74 countries. More than 18,000 people died worldwide, including 438 Canadians. Vaccines were developed but unfortunately this was after the peak of the virus. The disease continues to circulate seasonally but is not as deadly. In 2010 the WHO declared an end to the pandemic.
(The photograph featured in the thumbnail is of a woman suffering from Cholera c.1831, the left side is before and the right side is with the disease).