NIAW 2017: Learning about the History of Vaccine Preventable Disease at the Quarantine Tent

2 April 2017

It’s hard to picture a time before vaccines existed, but infectious diseases used to routinely claim countless lives every day.

In celebration of National Immunization Awareness Week 2017, PHO held an interactive Quarantine Tent exhibit to remind people what it was like before vaccines. Set-up at the MaRS Centre in Toronto, actors donned period-correct costumes and life-like make-up to show visitors what these now-rare diseases are like.

For example, one character was a 32-year old woman from 1918, with the Spanish flu in Toronto. She had debilitating pain in her legs, a major fever and was coughing so hard that she could barely breathe. Her husband, who was fighting in the war, had just died from the flu. Most of her family who cared for her were sick now too.

Spanish Flu was an H1N1 influenza strain. It was unusual in that it was most lethal for otherwise healthy adults, many of whom suffocated from the swelling and buildup of liquid in their lungs. By the end of the pandemic, the Spanish Flu infected one in six Canadian, killing up to 50,000. Worldwide, the disease killed more people than World War I in just two short years.

Other actors told similar tales of tragedy, but from diseases such as diphtheria, smallpox, mumps, pertussis, polio and HPV.

The lessons from these actors are stark reminders of what life before vaccines was like, and what life could be like if immunizations were to stop. The work of public health and immunization are crucial to protecting the lives of Ontarians and National Immunization Awareness Week is a time to look back on our success. However we continue to fight these diseases today and must continue working together to protect the lives of Ontarians. 

The Quarantine Tent is a grassroots event created by Pippa Wysong, a medical writer, to teach the public about the risk of diseases, medical science, and vaccination. She has been conducting Quarantine Tents since 2013. 

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Updated 2 April 2017