Posted on 10 February 2020
Our Commonwealth-Rutherford Fellow, Dr Namrata R. Ganneri, participated in the University of York based Humanities Research Centre’s tenth-anniversary celebrations held on 18 October 2019. She chose the bifurcated needle which is an important symbol of the worldwide smallpox eradication campaign, to talk about her research on the early history of the Indian programme. The object was one of the select entries showcased on the HRC events page as well.
In 1961, Dr Benjamin Rubin, a researcher with Wyeth Laboratories in Pennsylvania, and Gus Chakros, an engineer with the Reading Textile Machine Company, developed a bifurcated needle that could deliver smallpox vaccine into the skin cheaply and easily, with a minimum of training. The design of the needle was simple and optimised vaccine usage. When the needle was dipped into a vial of freeze-dried vaccine that had been rehydrated with a solution of 50 percent glycerine, a single drop of the viscous fluid was held by capillary action between the two tines of the needle. The needle could be reused and sterilized by boiling at the end of the day. Wyeth Laboratories waived the licensing costs especially since the needles would be used in developing countries participating in the smallpox eradication programme.
The World Health Organization (WHO) formally introduced the needle in the smallpox eradication programme in 1968, along with a manual to train health workers in the correct technique and usage. WHO began distributing these needles to programs in all endemic countries. However, the Indian programme continued to use the rotary lancet, a vaccinating instrument unique to the subcontinent for several years. Years of usage had led to entrenched attitudes among public health workers and therefore the new vaccinating instrument was fully incorporated into the Indian programme only as late as the mid-1970s. This was eventually achieved through indigenously produced manuals as well as persuasion by public health officials. Ganneri used the story of (non) acceptance of the bifurcated needle to underline the importance of studying ‘local’ contextual factors in understanding ‘global’ programmes.
Image caption: Bifurcated Needle ( Professor Sanjoy Battacharya’s personal collections)