Native Village 
Youth and Education News

November 1, 2013

TB vaccines tested on natives
Latest example of guinea-pig treatment
Condensed by Native Village

Canada: It was recently revealed that in the 1940s, Canada's government conducted nutritional experiments on unknowing, impoverished aboriginals. The news provoked widespread outrage and rallies across Canada.

Now we learn something new: in the 1930s, Canada tested tuberculosis vaccines on impoverished aboriginal people. It was cheaper than fixing the poor living conditions that spread the infectious respiratory disease.

Maureen Lux from Brock University says it's one more example of officials using aboriginal people as test subjects instead of fixing underlying problems.

"If (a vaccine) could provide resistance to TB, then we didn't need to deal with the economic situation that was causing the problem," she said.

Lux is a medical historian who specializes in the history of aboriginal people and the medical system. She first exposed the TB tests in a 1998 paper. Her research will be published in a book that's available early next year.

Lux pointed to conditions on Qu'Appelle area reserves in southern Saskatchewan during the early part of the 20th century.

"People lived in log huts," she said.  "They didn't have the cash for windows or doors. Living conditions were fairly crude."

And ... tuberculosis ran rampant.

For Qu'Appelle aboriginal children in 1921:

92.5% tested positive for exposure to TB.

The child-mortality rate surpassed the birth rate.

TB rates were
twice the percentage of non-native children

Lux said government officials understood the link between health and living conditions. In 1930, they built showpiece settlement at the File Hills Farm Colony. At Farm Hills:

 Log huts were swapped for frame houses.
                    New wells were dug. 
                                             Families were given chickens and garden seed.
                                                             Extra nutrition was provided to children and expectant mothers.         

                                                                                      / Tuberculosis death rates were halved.

But the File Hills model wasn't followed.

"It was clear that with slightly better living conditions, tuberculosis could be dealt with," Lux said.  "But that's a fairly expensive proposition. The vaccine was a much cheaper alternative. This provided great hope for the Department of Indian Affairs and the National Research Council."

The vaccine had already been tested on working-class children in Montreal, but it was difficult keeping track of the test subjects. The Qu'Appelle aboriginals, however, couldn't leave their reserves without a permit. Since they had high rates of tuberculosis, researchers considered them just right for the job.

From October 1933 -1945

609 aboriginal infants were involved in the tests

Half were given the vaccine. Half were not.

TB rates among non-vaccinated children were
500% greater than the vaccinated children.

But the real lesson from the tests was the connection between dire living conditions and overall health.

Of the 609 children in the tests

77 were dead before their first birthday.

4 died from TB.

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated groups had at least
200% the non-TB death rate as the general population.

"The most obvious result of the... vaccine trials was that poverty, not tuberculosis, was the greatest threat to native infants.  The trial was a success, but unfortunately the patients died."

The vaccine was judged safe and remains in use in many places today. Living conditions on reserves remained unaddressed.

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