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"AUB in 1948" - excerpts of President Stephen B. L. Penrose Jr.'s article for the Whitman Alumnus magazine
 

Summer 2007 Vol. V, No. 4

Faculty of Medicine and Medical Center: Deep Roots, Endless Skies

In Our History

AUH’s Life-Saving Vaccine andthe Cholera Epidemic of 1947

By Aleksandra Majstorac-Kobiljski

In late September 1947, a virulent strain of cholera caused an epidemic in Egypt.  As soon as the Egyptian government announced the spread of the bacterium, neighboring countries including Lebanon imposed severe restrictions on travel to and from Egypt. The French High Commissioner, knowing that there was very little cholera serum available for vaccinations, mandated that travelers be inoculated twice in a 30-day period, which effectively sealed the border. It was not these regulations, however, but the dedication of people at the AUB Hospital (AUH) that saved Lebanon from the epidemic.

Soon after the first news of confirmed cholera cases in Egypt arrived in Lebanon in early October 1947, AUB’s medical laboratories started producing cholera vaccines at a rate of 120 liters a week. To produce the serum this quickly, it was necessary to arrange for air shipments of Bacto Agar, a microbiological culture media used to make the vaccine, from the United States. Within a week, AUB’s New York office had ordered and arranged for 20 pounds to be sent to the University’s medical labs in Beirut. The New York Times wrote at the time that AUH had produced “the most effective cholera serum known to science.”

The vaccine became the most effective tool for fighting the epidemic in the region because it combined 30 virulent strains of the bacteria, including ones that were identified during the Syrian outbreak. The AUB laboratories continued to produce the serum until there was enough to inoculate everyone in Lebanon and sent serum to Syria where it was also needed. Armed with a large supply of enhanced vaccine, AUH was ready for what came next.

By late December 1947, there were two major outbreaks of cholera on the edge of the Jabal Druz region of Syria. Although there were no recorded cases around Damascus and no confirmed cases in Lebanon, there were 56 reported cases and 17 deaths in Jabal Druz by Christmas. While the Beirut administrative authorities rushed in troops to seal the border and Syrian police imposed a cordon sanitaire around the infected villages, AUH supplied serum to both the Lebanese and Syrian Health Departments. Having an effective vaccine and enough of it, however, was not enough. Prompt and comprehensive inoculation was the only way to avoid the spread of the epidemic to Lebanon and to control the existing outbreak in Syria. As they had done many times before and would do often in future years, AUB medical students generously donated their time and resources to provide medical care for those who needed it. To support the inoculation campaign, 45 medical students spent their Christmas vacations and several weeks of the spring term in 1948 inoculating the people of Lebanon and Syria. All schoolchildren and government employees were processed in record time and the spread of the epidemic was prevented.

The Syrian cholera epidemic was eradicated in part due to the new AUB cholera vaccine and in part because the bacteria strain was mild compared to the one that affected Egypt and claimed the lives of 20,472 by February 1948. It was also the commitment of AUB medical students and the speed and comprehensiveness of the inoculation campaign that prevented the outbreak in Lebanon that winter.