HISTORY OF PUBLIC HEALTH
A Canada-Brazil Network in the Global Eradication of Smallpox
Steven Palmer, PhD,1 Gilberto Hochman, PhD2
The year 2010 marks the 30thanniversary of the global eradi- study Medicine at Queen’s University was thwarted by admissions
cation of smallpox, the only public health effort in history to
policies favouring returning veterans. Instead he took his MD at
eradicate a disease from the human species. The Smallpox
the University of Rochester before joining CDC.5
Eradication Program (SEP) of the World Health Organization
Hopes for disease eradication had waned following setbacks in
(WHO) was an assemblage of state, bilateral and multilateral agen-
the malaria eradication program launched in the 1950s and this
cies and resources, deftly brought together and coordinated by
was reflected in the SEP’s meagre budget. Henderson created a net-
Donald A. Henderson, SEP director from 1966 to 1977. Less visible
work of allies who could provide resources outside WHO institu-
but equally crucial to the success of the SEP, especially at the level
tional structures. The strategy led him to Robert Wilson, then the
of vaccine research and production, were informal networks of pub-
second-in-command at Connaught Laboratories. A professor of
Hygiene and Preventive Medicine at the University of Toronto and
These “epistemic communities” were made up of knowledge-
a senior researcher at Connaught prior to becoming Assistant Direc-
based experts with authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowl-
tor in 1957, Wilson’s research interests had been concentrated on
edge within their field of expertise.1 Circulating among and
the development and production of combined vaccines such as
transecting different levels of international cooperation, their mem-
DPT and DPT-Polio.6 Henderson had become good friends with Wil-
bers shared similar academic backgrounds and scientific values, fre-
son from his days at CDC when both were closely involved with
quented the same seminars and specialist committee meetings, and
the introduction of the oral polio vaccine and attended many of the
understood the challenges involved in the production of vaccines.
same meetings.7 Henderson asked Wilson if Connaught could test
Often rooted in well-established research and production facilities,
batches of vaccine produced by laboratories in Latin America, and
these networks could operate without official nation-state sanction
carry out site visits and oversee training to ensure that vaccines pro-
or involvement by working through organizations with authority
duced in the region met an SEP standard. This would allow local
in international health like WHO and the Pan-American Health
production to cover demand in populous areas like Brazil and let
the SEP use donated vaccine in key sites like Indonesia that were
One such epistemic community linked Canada’s Connaught Lab-
without a domestic vaccine production capability.
oratories to the SEP and to Latin American – and particularly Brazil-
In 1966, Connaught was an autonomous, non-profit laboratory
ian – vaccine production. Its principal members were Henderson,
affiliated with the University of Toronto and regularly working with
José Fonseca da Cunha (1914-2005), who was responsible for vac-
the provincial and federal departments of health to develop a vari-
cine and serum production at Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Institute, and
ety of vaccines. A world leader in the development of freeze-dried
Connaught scientists Robert J. Wilson (1915-1989) and Paul Fenje.
smallpox vaccine, unencumbered by corporate or governmental
Officially, Canada played only an indirect part in the SEP through
oversight but interested in possible export markets, Connaught was
its role as a WHO member state, and at the outset of the global
ideally suited to take on the role that Henderson had in mind.8 Wil-
eradication initiative had no bilateral ventures of any kind in Latin
son, a well-connected public health scientist in a directorial post,
America. The Canada-Brazil network linking Henderson, Wilson,
was in a good position to accept Henderson’s appeal. His decision
Fenje, Fonseca da Cunha and others, however, allowed Connaught
to do so should also be understood in terms of its domestic back-
and Canadian scientists to become significant players in the glob-
drop. Canada was gearing up for its Centennial Year celebrations,
al eradication effort2 while simultaneously pressing the Canadian
and though the government remained ambivalent about playing
government to be less of a “reluctant partner” in health coopera-
any foreign policy or development role in the Americas, there was
a new internationalism brimming in the country’s professionalelites, one fostered by Lester Pearson’s profile and vision.9 In more
The SEP Link with Connaught
immediate public health terms, Latin America and Canada had
In 1965, the World Health Assembly voted to move ahead with a
been linked by smallpox only four years earlier, in 1962, when a
global smallpox eradication program, an idea first proposed by the
Canadian boy had provoked a bad “smallpox scare” and emergency
Soviet delegation in 1958. Donald Henderson, an epidemiologist
response after returning to Toronto via New York City suffering
from the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was
appointed to direct the operation.4 Descended on both sides from
southwestern Ontario farmers, Henderson had strong Canadian
1. Canada Research Chair in History of International Health; Associate Professor,
medical roots. His mother, Eleanor McMillan, was a graduate of
Department of History, University of Windsor, Windsor, ON
Chatham Hospital School of Nursing and worked on the smallpox
2. Senior Researcher and Professor, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Correspondence: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
wards at Henry Ford Hospital during North America’s last outbreak
Acknowledgements: The authors thank Luis Barreto, Christopher Rutty and Hugh
of variola major in Detroit and Windsor in 1924; his uncle, William
McNaught of Sanofi pasteur for their help in consulting the Connaught Archives, andDanieli Arbex for research assistance. We owe special thanks to Donald Henderson for
McMillan, a physician, would become the ranking Liberal Member
an engaging interview. The research for this article was supported by a grant from
of Parliament in the 1960s. Born in 1926 and raised in the United
FIOCRUZ and the National Council for Scientific Development-CNPq, Brazil, and bythe Canada Research Chair in History of International Health at the University of
States, Henderson’s 1946 attempt to follow family tradition and
Canadian Public Health Association, 2010. All rights reserved.
CANADIAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH • MARCH/APRIL 2010 113 HISTORY OF PUBLIC HEALTH Brazil and Smallpox
labs (working somewhat in the shadow of the Oswaldo Cruz Insti-
Brazil was one of the most significant countries in the global small-
tute) made with Connaught gave them tremendous technical, tech-
pox eradication program, and it was the key country in South
nological and morale boosts. In a 1970 letter to Henderson, he
America. Aside from its great size and the fact that it bordered on
commented that he was “vastly pleased” to see that “both Insti-
every state in the region, in the middle of the 1960s it was the only
tutes have taken the challenge, as have the young scientists and
country with endemic smallpox, for the most part variola minor.
nothing is going to hold them back now.”21 Fonseca da Cunha
Brazil had a long history of combating smallpox dating from the
recalled the relationship between Oswaldo Cruz and Connaught as
19th century, though the disease had dropped off the public health
a smoothly functioning one. “We sent vaccine samples to Toronto,
agenda by the 1930s. Smallpox programs were revived by the
they tested them and determined, ‘This one’s good, this one’s no
Kubitschek administration in 1958 due to the international atten-
good’. And from time to time we welcomed the consultants to the
tion given to the Soviet eradication proposal to the World Health
Assembly. A military government took power in Brazil in 1964, and
A number of Brazilian scientists from all three facilities trained at
began looking for national and international legitimacy. Despite
Connaught. Among them was Fonseca da Cunha, whose 1968 res-
formidable limitations in national infrastructure and fiscal capaci-
idency to study production and testing of sterile freeze-dried vac-
ty, and with most available epidemiological resources invested in
cine cemented strong personal and professional relations with
malaria eradication, in November 1966 the regime began a Small-
Wilson and Fenje.23 Between 1969 and 1972, crucial years for
pox Eradication Campaign (CEV) associated with the WHO project.
Brazil’s CEV, Fonseca da Cunha served as cabinet secretary at the
Even though some material resources and technical assistance came
Ministry of Health. Wilson himself took over as Chairman and
from abroad, the eradication of smallpox in Brazil was led and
Director of Connaught in 1972, allowing him to lobby the Cana-
attained principally through national, Brazilian financial and
dian government to make additional donations of vaccine ear-
human resources.11 Vaccine science and production was concen-
marked for the global eradication program. In August 1973, he
trated at Oswaldo Cruz, a laboratory with a long history of sero-
served as a member and Vice-Chairman of the commission that
logical and tropical medical research excellence.12
certified the eradication of smallpox in Brazil, and, consequently –
The vaccine science network linking Canada to Brazil actually
Brazil being the last Latin American country with endemic cases –
pre-dated the creation of the SEP and the Brazilian CEV. Sponsored
by a Rockefeller fellowship, Fonseca da Cunha had visited Con-naught Laboratories in 1959, the same year that he became chief of
vaccine production at Oswaldo Cruz.13 As early as 1960, he initiat-
Wilson’s decision to make a deep commitment of Connaught’s
ed correspondence with Cleve Russell Amies, the scientist leading
energies to WHO, PAHO and the Brazilian CEV is a good example
the research on freeze-dried vaccine at Connaught.14 Fonseca da
of the willingness among leaders of the Canadian public health
Cunha felt that a freeze-dried vaccine, whose development was sub-
community to anticipate and promote the reorientation of Cana-
sequently undertaken at Oswaldo Cruz, was “the true solution to
dian foreign assistance, officially codified in a 1970 report initiat-
the Smallpox problem in Brazil … [which was a] big country.”15 He
ed by the Trudeau government that embraced greater hemispheric
still held the conviction seven years later when stepped-up assis-
involvement.25 In a fraught political and ideological Cold War con-
tance from Connaught in the stabilization and quality control of
text, Brazilian public health laboratories were able to engage a ‘neu-
freeze-dried vaccine would prove crucial to overcoming challenges
tral’ network for additional technical assistance in carrying out a
stemming from the extension of the country’s territory and popu-
national eradication campaign, in so doing dove-tailing with the
objectives of WHO’s global eradication initiative. The history ofthis Canada-Brazil network reveals the importance of epistemic
The Canada-Brazil SEP Collaboration
communities and non-governmental forms of engagement in the
Mobilizing Connaught’s resources, Wilson was joined by Yugoslavian-
global eradication of smallpox, and in Canada-Brazil scientific col-
born Paul Fenje, internationally recognized for his improvement
of smallpox vaccine quality.16 Between their first trip in 1967 andthe certification of smallpox eradication in Brazil in 1973, Con-
naught consultants made nine trips to Latin American countries,
Peter M. Haas, “Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Pol-
with an increasing concentration on Brazil where 62% of their 310
icy Coordination,” International Organizations, 46:1, pp. 1-35 Winter 1992.
The Connaught venture with WHO is explored in depth by Luis Barreto and
total person-days were spent.17 Between 1967 and 1969 in particu-
Christopher Rutty, “The Speckled Monster: Canada, Smallpox and Its Eradi-
lar Wilson and Fenje were applied-scientist road warriors of the late
cation,” Can J Public Health 2002;93(4):I1-I20.
Dmitrienko Klaudia. Reluctant Partner: Canada’s Relationship with the Pan
Pan-American age, taking on grueling itineraries with significant
American Health Organization (PAHO). Hist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos [serial
international health responsibility and the risk of professional and
on the Internet]. 2006 Sep [cited 2010 Feb 12] ; 13(3): 717-732. Available from:h t t p : / / w w w. s c i e l o . b r / s c i e l o . p h p ? s c r i p t = s c i _ a r t t e x t & p i d = S 0 1 0 4 -
political embarrassment should something go wrong.18
59702006000300009&lng=en (Accessed February 22, 2010).
The Connaught collaboration was considered a success by all
Frank Fenner, Donald A Henderson, I. Arita, I, Zdenek Jezek, I. D. Ladnyi,
three parties in the network.19 Although Wilson and Fenje’s efforts
Smallpox and its Eradication (Geneva: WHO, 1988); Donald A. Henderson,Smallpox: the Death of a Disease: The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide
in Brazil were concentrated on stabilizing freeze-dried production
Killer (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009).
methods at Oswaldo Cruz – by far the most important producer in
Gilberto Hochman and Steven Palmer, An Interview with Donald A. Hen-derson on the 30th Anniversary of the Eradication of Smallpox,” Hist. cien.
South America – over half of their time in the country was spent on
saúde-Manguinhos, forthcoming; Henderson, Smallpox, 7-8.
technical and training upgrades at serological laboratories in SaoPaolo and Porto Alegre.20 Wilson felt that the link these ‘secondary’
114 REVUE CANADIENNE DE SANTÉ PUBLIQUE • VOL. 101, NO. 2 CELEBRITY INJURY AND CHILDREN’S ER VISITS
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