Tuesday 18 September 2018

'When the next major pandemic threat comes, I worry that people will hold off on vaccines' - specialist on disease

Dr Ida Milne (58) finds you can tell a lot about society by tracking its illnesses and disorders over time

Unique subject matter: Dr Ida Milne is a lecturer in Carlow College. Photo: Thomas Nolan Photography
Unique subject matter: Dr Ida Milne is a lecturer in Carlow College. Photo: Thomas Nolan Photography

I grew up on a farm in Wexford. My granny had four brothers who were doctors which gave us all an interest in what they did. They were the exciting things in our lives. Two of them were ship's doctors and they'd bring back things from the Far East and Africa - we had a fascination with medicine and travel as a result.

After working as a journalist and a librarian, I went back to college in 2000 and fell in love with history. I loved telling stories, doing original research and understanding who we were.

During my masters at Maynooth University I discovered that 300 or 400 people a week were dying of flu in Dublin in 1918. It was huge and that story had never really been told.

I went and asked my dad, a local historian in Wexford, about it. He knew quite a lot about it and said everyone thought it was a local story in their area. They didn't realise it was part of a bigger global picture.

In fact, it was the biggest killing influenza pandemic ever. It spread really efficiently. It's believed that anywhere between one fifth and half the world's population caught it. In Ireland if one fifth caught it, that would mean 800,000 people altogether. We know that it killed between two and three per cent of those who caught it.

I felt this was a good subject for dissertation. Every newspaper in the country was talking about it at the time, particularly in Leinster.

After doing my MA dissertation and understanding what a big story it was, I went into Trinity to do my PhD with Professor David Dickson. Within a couple of months of starting it, he said to me: "You know you have this very narrow window left to collect living memory of the flu? People who were children at the time are now in their 90s or 100s." This gave me what is now recognised as a global specialty in something that nobody else has done. It's been fascinating to get people to reflect back on it at the end of their lives.

I finished my PhD in 2011 and, in 2014, I got an Irish Research Council Elevate fellowship which got me much more interested in disease in general. I began to realise that the people I had spoken to hadn't just lost people to flu but they had constantly lost people to disease their whole lives.

One person I interviewed was Stella McConnon Larkin, who is James Larkin's granddaughter. She spoke of her mother, Annie, growing up in Dublin's Marlborough Street as one of 10 children and being the only one to survive over the age of five. She was born in 1909. Some of her family had died from infant diarrhoea, which was a massive killer in those days. Some had died from measles. That was typical of life at the time.

What makes all this so fascinating is that when you're looking at a history of disease, you're looking at something that affects everybody. You come to understand that disease and ill health were perhaps the underpinning of the revolution; of what made people so deeply unhappy with the country.

My latest research project was looking at the changing landscape of childhood diseases in Ireland. I've been collecting the stories of disease from doctors and nurses and lots of different people. They have talked about the damage something like measles can do.

Why I started was because my daughter Síofra, now 23, contracted measles in 1996 before she was old enough to get the MMR vaccine. It was the first case of measles the GP I brought her to had ever seen. It was very unusual to see an outbreak but what we were starting to see then was the beginning of vaccination resistance.

In a way, our generation was the lucky one: we lived in a new era for child health, when infectious diseases did not kill as easily as they once had. We had antibiotics, introduced in Ireland in the late 1940s, and for a long time they were miracle workers.

Before that, most families suffered child death from measles or other infectious disease, such as whooping cough, scarlet fever, diphtheria and, of course, tuberculosis.

In the Ireland of the 1910s, 20pc of the annual 70,000 average deaths were children under the age of five, many dying from these infectious diseases.

It seems that new parents have so little knowledge of the power of diseases like measles to kill and maim, that they think the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease. Those of us from an earlier era, those who know the historic statistics, or who have seen the damage to our family members who must live with brain damage or deafness, can tell them otherwise.

One of the reasons I do what I do is to tell the stories about what happened in the past.

Historians put things in academic journals where people don't see them but, for me, I want people to read this.

Medical doctors will come to me and say please put them in a form where we can pass them on to patients at our clinic.

When the 2009 flu pandemic came about, people worried it had some of the same features as the 1918 flu.

When the next major pandemic threat comes, I worry that people will hold off on vaccines partly because of the Pandemrix vaccine scandal and partly because they see that the 2009 flu didn't live up to the threat posed at the time.

Ida Milne lectures in European history at Carlow College. Her book Stacking the Coffins: Influenza, War and Revolution in Ireland, 1918-19 is published by Manchester University Press.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

Irish Independent

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