The forgotten epidemic: Learning lessons from Halifax’s 1890 diphtheria outbreak
HALIFAX -- The year 2020 has been described by many as unprecedented, as we continue to learn to live in a world severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But from a public health perspective, we’ve been down similar paths.
One medical historian points to the diphtheria epidemic of 1890 as an example of striking public health parallels, and what lessons we can learn from how contact tracing was done 130 years ago.
During the winter of 1890-91, families lived in terror of the bacterial infection that killed hundreds of Nova Scotia children.
“It was killing hundreds of thousands of children all over the world, including 280 in Halifax,” says Allan Marble, chair of the Medical History Society of Nova Scotia.
Marble says an 1890 map of Halifax provides a fascinating look at the spread of the bacterial infection, and how public health attempted to trace the epidemic.
“That’s the first example of contact tracing that I’m aware of,” says Marble.
Marble says that map is actually similar to how public health shares information about the spread of COVID-19, with every red dot showing outbreaks of the infectious disease in Halifax.
Historian David Jones studies old maps, and says this one is crucial to understanding how deadly diphtheria was, and how hard health-care professionals in 1890 were working to contain it.
“Block-by-block, street-by-street, mapping out the houses where people were suffering,” says Jones.
The diphtheria outbreak of 1890 wasn’t the first in the province, or even the most deadly. Marble says during previous outbreaks, diphtheria killed more than 1,000 young Nova Scotians.
“When someone has diphtheria, what happens is the membranes in the neck expand and get larger and eventually they cut off your airway,” explains Marble. “I found seven instances where parents lost eight children within a month from diphtheria.”
At the time, there was no vaccine, and the infection spread at an alarming rate, in part due to a lack of medical knowledge.
“Children with diphtheria were still allowed to go to school,” says Marble.
Marble says, not unlike 2020, some people resisted public health restrictions in 1890.
“It was probably worse then3 during the 1890s, people are more educated now,” says Marble.
Marble says as we continue to navigate through this modern day pandemic, we can learn a lot by studying the impact of a forgotten epidemic of our region’s past.