London

What can we learn from a 1-day measles vaccination blitz in 1967 Ontario?

A letter addressed to a London, Ont., mother in 1967 is providing new insight into how a measles vaccination campaign rolled out more than five decades ago in the southwestern Ontario city.

A former Londoner recently discovered a letter commending her mother for volunteering during the blitz

This photo was featured in a 1968 article in The Canadian Nurse/L'Infirmiere Canadienne. It was written by Dorothy M. Mumby who was the director of public health nursing for Middlesex-London District Health Unit. (L'Infirmiere Canadienne)

A letter addressed to a London, Ont., mother in 1967 is providing new insight into how a measles vaccination campaign rolled out more than five decades ago in the southwestern Ontario city.

"I found this old letter a while ago in a box of my old report cards and school memorabilia," wrote Debbie Clipperton in a Facebook post. 

The letter, addressed to Mrs. Lewis and signed by Douglas M. Cram, M.D., the Director of Medical Services for London's Board of Education at the time, begins, "The programme of 'End Measles' is over. I am sure all of you will agree that the programme was overwhelmingly successful." 

Debbie Clipperton, who now lives in New Brunswick, recently posted this letter on social media. It was sent to Clipperton's mother, who volunteered during London's measles vaccination clinic in 1967. (Debbie Clipperton/Facebook)

"Without the individual voluntary help of each of you, this programme would not have been possible," the letter continues.

"Such a different time in 1967 when school parents, families and communities worked together...and were thanked for their efforts," Clipperton wrote in her social media post.

One-day vaccination blitz

In the spring of 1967, there was a measles outbreak in London, said Heather MacDougall, associate professor emeritus in the University of Waterloo's history department. She's studied Canada's historical roll out of the measles vaccine.

There was a very strong sense of collective responsibility for community health in those days.- Heather MacDougall, professor emeritus, University of Waterloo

The medical officer of health at the time, Dr. D. A. Hutchison, believed a one-day vaccination blitz would stop the virus from spreading to any more children, said MacDougall.

"The medical officer in London had followed very carefully the approach that American cities had been using to do mass immunization against measles," she said.

Plus, she says he opted for the vaccine the Americans were using, not the Canadian-made vaccine that Ontario was willing to pay for.

"In Canada, we actually had the Connaught Laboratories and they were developing a killed measles vaccine," said MacDougall. "The one that we use today and the one that was used in London in 1967 was a live virus vaccine."

It cost the city $30,000, she said.

"In April of 1967, which of course, we should remember, Canada's centennial year, London's present to its children, was measles vaccinations."

Associate professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo's history department, Heather MacDougall has studied Ontario's measles vaccine rollout. (University of Waterloo)

The public embraced the new vaccine

Dealing with its own measles outbreak, Hamilton soon followed London's lead and offered the same vaccine in another one-day campaign in November, 1967. "What's quite interesting is that both cities were — in a way — defying the Ontario Ministry of Health."

Families turned out in the thousands to get their children vaccinated, eagerly lining up down sidewalks at the various clinics, first in London and then in Hamilton, said MacDougall. 

"There was a very strong sense of collective responsibility for community health in those days."

Things are different today, said MacDougall.

"The positive response to science, technology and expert recommendations that we saw in the 1960s has been eroded with the passage of time," she said adding that today there's an increasing emphasis on individual choice.

"That is a marked contrast to the past," she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Zandbergen

Host, London Morning

Rebecca Zandbergen is from Ottawa and has worked for CBC Radio across the country for more than 20 years, including stops in Iqaluit, Halifax, Windsor and Kelowna. Contact Rebecca at rebecca.zandbergen@cbc.ca or follow @rebeccazandberg on Twitter.

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