It’s 1927, and you need to get the word out about vaccination for diphtheria. There’s no social media to speak of, so you have limited options. Newspapers, of course. Direct mail, though mass mailings are expensive and computerized mailing lists don’t exist. Radio, but although radio has exploded in just a few years, it’s still not a sure thing that you’ll be reaching everyone.
Hey, how about we drop pamphlets from the sky?
That’s what they did in Albany that year, on what seems like the unlikely date of December 3 (when the number of people wandering outside would not have been at its maximum – but as a communicable disease, diphtheria prevailed from October-March). “A shower of blue pamphlets, urging toxin-anti-toxin treatment against diphtheria, descended upon Albany today from an army observation plane as a part of the campaign by the municipal health bureau to check the epidemic in Albany. The plane, piloted by Lieutenant Harry P. Bissell, was flown to Albany from Mitchel field, Garden City, L.I., through an arrangement made by Dr. James W. Wiltse, city health officer, and Dr. Matthias Nicoll, Jr., state health commissioner, with Lieutenant Colonel B.D. Foulois, in command at Michel field. The circulars were distributed by Sergeant Walter Starling, flying with Lieutenant Bissell.”
The pamphlets were prepared by Dr. Wiltse and Dr. Clinton P. McCord, medical director for schools, and advised parents to have children inoculated and gave the locations and hours for inoculations.
Since Nov. 1, there had been 49 cases of diphtheria, with four deaths of young children, in Albany. The campaign was focused on Arbor Hill, where the majority of the cases had been reported. Clinics were conducted in School 22, School 6, School 16 and School 4. There were also clinics at the West End Health Center, the South End Dispensary, St. Mary’s School and St. Joseph’s School. “At least one of the Albany deaths which occurred, it was declared, came after a parent refused to allow a child to be immunized against the disease. ‘I would just as soon deprive my children of food as to deprive them of toxin anti-toxin,’ Dr. Nicoll said.”
By Christmas, there would be 75 cases and seven deaths, and a scarlet fever outbreak had sickened 100 and killed one. In the 1920s, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 cases of diphtheria occurred per year in the United States, causing 13,000 to 15,000 deaths per year, according to the Public Health Foundation’s “Pink Book.” The development of a vaccine led to a decline in deaths starting in 1924. It is currently considered fatal in 5-10% of cases, and as high as 20% in the young and the old. Along with fever, sore throat, and coughing, it can cause extreme difficult swallowing and breathing, as it destroys health tissue in the respiratory system, creating a build-up called a pseudomembrane that covers the tissue.