While aboriginal children died of tuberculosis in the 1930s and 1940s, Canadian health officials tried out experimental vaccines on infants rather than ameliorate the conditions of poverty that sparked that and a host of other illnesses.
These revelations, while not new, have re-emerged in the wake of the discovery that nutritional experiments were conducted on First Nations children in the 1940s.
As with the nutritional experiments, the TB vaccine research capitalized on the poverty of its subjects to conduct studies rather than address the underlying factors leading to the high incidence of the lung infection, says a report by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
“It is pretty depressing. It is just document after document. They treated these people like they were not even human,” said Maureen Lux, a professor at Brock University who is writing a book about the treatment of indigenous people in TB sanitoriums, in an interview with the network. “It is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done.”
In the interview posted by APTN on July 24, Lux discussed the findings she had first published in a 1998 paper on the vaccine trials, which she is expanding into the book due out next year.
“Historians have been reluctant to question medical care because we are enthralled with the power of medicine,” she told APTN. “Once I started looking at what was going and how they were operated and in whose interest, it becomes a fairly dark story.”
In studying aboriginal people and the medical system, Lux examined reserve conditions in southern Saskatchewan, in the Qu’Appelle region, during the early 20th century.
In expanding her paper on the treatment of indigenous people in sanatoriums, she found that a federal program that ran from 1930 to 1932 had cut the tuberculosis rate in half by improving housing conditions, drilling wells to access better-quality water, and enhancing nutrition for children and pregnant women. Lux’s paper, "Perfect Subjects: Race Tuberculosis and the Qu’Appelle BCG Vaccine Trial," detailed these findings, as well as the fact that the government had chosen to ignore this solution and seek the cheaper method of simply vaccinating babies against the disease, APTN reported.
“The general death rate and the infant mortality rate both also fell. Thus, before the BCG vaccine trials were begun, the tuberculosis death rate had been reduced by half by marginal improvements in living conditions, and especially by segregating those with active tuberculosis,” wrote Lux, according to APTN.
Although the vaccine ultimately was proven to work—and is still in use today—children died of gastroenteritis and pneumonia during the study period, Lux wrote. Although some medical professionals expressed misgivings about the ethics of such studies, they continued.
“Between October 1933 and 1945, a total of 609 infants were involved in the tests—half given the vaccine, half not,” the Canadian Press reported. “Results were clear: nearly five times as many cases of TB among the non-vaccinated children. But the real lesson from the tests was the connection between dire living conditions and overall health.”
The report went on to elaborate.
“Of the 609 children in the tests, 77 were dead before their first birthday, only four of them from TB,” the Canadian Press wrote. “Both vaccinated and unvaccinated groups had at least twice the non-tuberculosis death rate as the general population.”
This would seem especially cruel in light of the TB scourge that persists today, especially in Inuit communities.
But the experiments didn’t stop there, Lux told APTN. The TB antibiotic streptomycin was administered to First Nations patients in other trials at Charles Camsell hospital in Edmonton, which has since closed down. In addition, Lux told APTN, doctors surgically removed TB from indigenous patients up until the 1950s and 1960s, long after the practice had been discontinued in the non-indigenous population.
“Do we interpret that surgeons and medical directors thought they were doing right and never questioning the assumption that these people were going to actually spread TB when they actually weren’t?” Lux told APTN. “They could do it and they did it and that is as shocking as any kind of experiment.”