MED : Sydney’s Festival of Medicine

By Indranil Halder

Recently, I attended MED  which is Sydney’s festival of medicine through a diverse programme of activities, exhibitions and talks across Sydney and State Library of NSW.

MED & Events in Sydney :

MED 2022 was held in six cities across the globe Sydney, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, London and Singapore. Through a series of Sydney based festivals MED celebrated, educated and shared ideas for healthy living to inspire future generations. In Sydney, the event was held  from 29/07 to 31/07. First part of the program highlighted the Healthy Cities’s goal of placing health high on the social and political agenda of cities.

Ashley McKimm ( Director of Innovation and Improvement) from British Medical Journal coordinated the programme with volunteers and State Library of NSW staffs. Jeremy McAnulty ( Executive Director of Health Protection NSW Public Health Physician) spoke about some of the responses NSW took to protect public, health system and society during Covid-19 pandemic. While Evelyne de Leeuw ( Director of the Centre for Health Equity Training Research and Evaluation, UNSW, Sydney) spoke about the importance of health being part of urban development and Dr. Nimish Biloria (Architect and Emergent technologies and design specialist) spoken about impact of urban development on health. He focused on new developments in Sydney such as The Ponds( an  Western Sydney suburb) where lack of greenery, longer commuting hours and cultural biases to build big houses adding risks such as cardiovascular death, shorter life expectancy and adult obesity to one’s life.  While Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Walking Tour and Museum was cancelled due to rise in Covid-19 case in Sydney. Other than  Healthy Cities talk, I attended WHO Health for All Film Festival with 2000 entries and ‘Cure or Kill ? exhibition at the State Library of NSW.


My learning :

Our world has seen epidemics such as cholera, malaria, yellow fever amongst many. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, my father Chidananda Halder recalled the horrors of deaths in the villages across South 24 Parganas district in the Indian state of West Bengal from previous pandemics. I would listen to him on my phone as Australia experienced lockdown after  locked down for nearly two years.  Australian cities such as Melbourne and Sydney were faced with challenging times.Wearing  mask,  staying  indoor and following  government health guidelines became part of our lives.  Soon aeroplanes loaded with Pfizer vaccines arrived from United States to protect Australian health. Followed by Astra Zeneca vaccine from United Kingdom.

As I attended the Kill or Cure exhibition, I quickly learnt that vaccination has an extraordinary history. Humans gained immunity to certain disease by contracting it and developing immunity before vaccines. While African , Chinese and Indian cultures understood the  idea of resisting smallpox and practiced inoculation widely.

According to the State Library of NSW Kill or Cure? brochure, subtitled Infectious disease,”In early 1700s, a Greek woman in Turkey inoculated children against smallpox by transmitting tiny amount of smallpox matter into a vein of a child. Lady Mary Wortley( wife of the British ambassador) witness the procedure and instructed her physician at the British Embassy to inoculate her six-year-old son Edward. She promoted the practice during smallpox epidemic in London. 75 years later, Edward Jenner’s experiments with cowpox virus proved that it could be used as a vaccine to prevent smallpox. “ The exhibition also  established a deep connection between India and Australia with the use of vaccines.

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In 1804,the  cowpox vaccine arrived in NSW from India. Then in 1813 , Bengal Medical Board sent slips of ivory with lancet points to introduce the smallpox vaccine in a ship named Eliza Captn Murray which arrived in Bencoolen. It was sent by William Russell ( Supt. General of Vaccine, Calcutta to Thomas Jamison( Physician General,NSW). Calcutta or Kolkata is also the city which was known for research in malaria and Dr Ronald Ross got the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for his work on malaria in India. He worked for 25 years with the Indian Medical Service at Cunningham’s laboratory of Presidency Hospital in Calcutta after arriving in 1898. According to GetBengal article,’How is Sir Ross’ Kolkata doing?’ Ross was supported by  laboratory assistants Mahomed (or Muhammed) Bux, Purboona (who deserted him after the first payday), and Kishori Mohan Bandopadhyay. It is fascinating to see that same vaccine connection between Australia and India also exists today. Recently, I visited my father in Kolkata, after a gap of two years due to Covid-19 pandemic. It was possible as Australian government approved Covaxin (manufactured by Bharat Biotech, India) and Covishield (AstraZeneca/Serum Institute of India) for Australians with few others.

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At the MED festival, it was interesting to listen  to Michael Adam, (creator of Forgotten Australia podcast) as guest speaker for MED’s Healthy Cities talk. He spoke about The Spanish Flue. It was 100 years ago, that the flue killed 15-20 million people world wide. and 11,000 in Australia. Very similar to over 9,000 deaths in Australia from Covid-19.

Michael also highlighted that during Spanish Flue, masks  were introduced, restaurants were closed and lockdowns were declared to reduce the impact of the epidemic on Australian population. The Peace Ball at that time was a super spreader of Spanish Flue in Sydney. More than 20% of NSW indigenous population died from the epidemic too. Finally, as the epidemic was contained, measures were relaxed and news headlines stated : Sydney breaths Again!

Attending MED, certainly help me to understand the many reasons  for  health promotions, sustainable urban developments and introduction of multi sectoral changes to our lives. The event has also increase my knowledge about urban living and its connection to health. As I keep traveling between Sydney and Kolkata, I ask myself, one question : How do we make Sydney or Kolkata healthier and happier post Covid-19?