The Historical Medical Library here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia holds seven floors of stacks of books, journals, and archives. The scale of the library, and its testament to human illness, can be overwhelming. Our recent research on tuberculosis provides an example: standing in the stacks, surrounded by row upon row of books about TB, is a grim experience. But though our library gives the impression that TB is an historical artifact, it’s most certainly not. It continues to take an enormous global toll: there are 9.4 million new infections a year, and there were 1.3 million deaths from TB in 2008 alone.
One of these recent trips into the stacks led us to the Final Report of the International Tuberculosis Campaign (1951), an optimistic portrait of the promises of an early immunization campaign. The book offers comprehensive statistics of the massive tuberculosis campaign undertaken in 23 countries in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The project initially began as a Scandinavian Red Cross effort in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Tuberculosis rates had soared in the disruption and privation the war created. In Poland, tuberculosis rates among children had quadrupled. As Niels Brimnes writes, the president of the Danish Red Cross announced on the radio in 1948, “The spirit of the Nordic Vikings has been part of this campaign as in the old days. Earlier we went out sword in hand to conquer and fight each other. Today we go out together with the needles as our only weapon to fight the scourge of the Second World War: tuberculosis” (Niels Brimnes, “Vikings against Tuberculosis: The International Tuberculosis Campaign in India”).
Unicef helped extend the Red Cross tuberculosis campaign beyond Europe when it contributed $2 million to bring the program to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Nearly 38 million people were tested for exposure to tuberculosis, and more than 16 million people received the tuberculosis vaccine (called BCG vaccine) in this campaign, which ran through 1951. The campaign was groundbreaking not only in its scope, but in some of its methods, such as the use of lay-vaccinators in areas where medical personnel were not available. The World Health Organization’s Smallpox Eradication Programme, begun in the 1960s, may have drawn upon ITC innovations in its reliance on community members to implement its eradication strategies.
Look for more information on the development of the tuberculosis vaccine in our “Other Diseases” timeline.
Brimnes N. Vikings against tuberculosis: The International Tuberculosis Campaign in India, 1948-1951. Bull Hist Med. 2007; 81:407-430.
Final Report of the International Tuberculosis Campaign, July 1, 1948–June 30, 1951. Copenhagen: The International Tuberculosis Campaign, October, 1951.
The International Tuberculosis Campaign–Final Report. Am J Public Health. 1952 July; 42(7): 869–870.