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Pandemics in Canada

A pandemic is an outbreak of an infectious disease that affects a large proportion of the population in multiple countries or worldwide. Human populations have been affected by pandemics since ancient times. These include widespread outbreaks of plague, cholera, influenza and, more recently, HIV/AIDS, SARS and COVID-19. In order to slow or stop the spread of disease, governments implement public health measures that include testing, isolation and quarantine. In Canada, public health agencies at the federal, provincial and municipal levels play an important role in monitoring disease, advising governments and communicating to the public.

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Partridge Island

Partridge Island is located in the Bay of Fundy, about 1 km from the shoreline and the city of Saint John, New Brunswick. The island was set aside as a quarantine station in 1785 and operated as such between 1830 and 1941. Many immigrants arriving to Canada by ship, including thousands of  Irish in 1847, were isolated on the island before being allowed to enter the country. This was done in an effort to prevent the spread of infectious diseases common on overcrowded vessels. In 1974, the Partridge Island quarantine station was designated a national historic site. Other important events are associated with the island, including the installation of the world’s first steam-operated fog alarm in 1859 (see also Robert Foulis).

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Metchosin

Metchosin, British Columbia, incorporated as a district municipality in 1984, population 4,708 (2016 census), 4,803 (2011 census). The District of Metchosin is located on Vancouver Island. It overlooks the Juan de Fuca Strait. Metchosin is part of the Greater Victoria area. From the late 1800s to 1958, a quarantine station operated at William Head in Metchosin. Many immigrants arriving to Canada by ship were quarantined at William Head before being allowed to enter the country. This was done in an effort to prevent the spread of infectious diseases common on overcrowded ships. In addition, from 1924 to 1956, there was a leper colony on nearby Bentinck Island.

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Quarantine Act

Canada adopted quarantine legislation in 1872, five years after Confederation. It was replaced by the current Quarantine Act, which was passed by the Parliament of Canada and received royal assent in 2005. The act gives sweeping powers to the federal health minister to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases. These powers can include health screenings, the creation of quarantine facilities and mandatory isolation orders. The Quarantine Act was introduced in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003. It was invoked in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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SARS in Canada

Canada experienced an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Most of the infections originated in Toronto hospitals. The outbreak led to the quarantine of thousands, killed 44 people and took an economic toll on Toronto. It also exposed the country’s ill-prepared health-care system. Confusion around SARS fuelled an uptick in anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiment.

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Smallpox in Canada

Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by the variola virus. The disease arrived in what is now Canada with French settlers in the early 17th century. Indigenous people had no immunity to smallpox, resulting in devastating infection and death rates. In 1768, arm-to-arm inoculation became more widely practised in North America. By 1800, advances in vaccination helped control the spread of smallpox. Public health efforts also reduced rates of infection. In the 20th century, Canadian scientists helped the World Health Organization eradicate smallpox. Eradication was achieved in 1979, but virus stocks still exist for research and safety reasons.

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.