LOOKING BACK: A Forest Spray and the Death of 10 Year Old Timmy Keddy

Biological Warfare in New Brunswick
By Russell Hunt
{as published in Weekend 26: 32 (August 7, 1976), [11] – [15] }

I. Timmy
LIKE lots of other children in the winter of 1972, 10 year old Timmy Keddy of Durham Bridge, New Brunswick, came down with the flu. No one thought much of it; the flu was running through the whole Keddy family at the time, and while it was uncomfortable, it was just the flu. Or it was until Sunday night, January 23, when Timmy’s fever went to 106 degrees and he began repeatedly and violently vomiting, and became delirious. “Towards morning,” his mother says, “he started complaining about pains in his lower back, and he was still running the fever, and at times he was still delirious.” The next day, Timmy was taken to Victoria Public Hospital in Fredericton, a few miles away. Timmy’s parents had a lot of faith in doctors, and they were relieved when they were told that it was just the flu and Timmy would be all right.

But later that day they received a terrifying call from the hospital. “They told us they couldn’t get him to settle down,” Mrs. Keddy says, “and asked for us to come to the hospital. We went to the hospital and by the time we got there he was in a coma.”
It is not hard to imagine the Keddys’ feelings that night, though they do not talk about them much. Their one and a half-year old daughter had similar symptoms and was also in hospital; and Timmy’s elder sister appeared to be coming down with the same thing.

The next morning the hospital called again. Mr. Keddy took the call. “I don’t know what they told him,” Mrs. Keddy says, “but we weren’t very long in getting there. And as soon as we got there we were met and asked if we wanted our minister, and our minister came, and performed the rites, and baptized him, and from there they put him in intensive care.” During the day it was decided that nothing could be done for Timmy in Fredericton, and that he should be taken to Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children in Halifax. He was flown there by the Air Rescue Service on Tuesday, and his case was taken over by Dr. J.F.S. Crocker, a specialist with an interest in among other things
kidney diseases. On Thursday night, the 27th of January, Timmy died. He had never regained consciousness.

II. Reye’s Syndrome
For Dr. Crocker, Timmy’s case was nothing new. There had been a number of similar cases in New Brunswick — in fact, the province was in the midst of what could be called, in the case of a condition as rare as this, an epidemic. In the winters of 1971 72 and 1972 73, at least nine New Brunswick children suffered as Timmy suffered. Five of them died.
What killed Timmy Keddy [photo above] was not, technically, a disease, but a syndrome; that is, a series of symptoms which occur together but whose relationship is not clearly understood. The syndrome was defined in 1963 by Dr. R.D.K. Reye (pronounced “Rye”) at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney, Australia. It is apparently a modern illness. It attacks children almost exclusively, and as yet its cause (or pattern of causes) is — as one medical report phrased it — enigmatic. Although some progress in treatment has been made, through such drastic measures as replacing the child’s entire blood supply, most victims still die.

It is a terrifying sickness in other ways as well. It usually follows some minor viral infection — flu and chicken pox are common. Just when the child seems to be beginning to recover, he begins vomiting uncontrollably, develops a high fever, and shows central nervous system disorders ranging from irritability and depression, through hysteria and inability to recognize his family, to convulsions and coma. In a significant number of the cases in which the child survives there is damage to the brain or nervous system. But often the child does not survive: mortality rates ranging from 50 to 80 percent are common.

Just how the syndrome works is not clearly understood. Two primary disorders are involved. On the one hand, there is severe brain disease: on the other, there is marked degeneration and fat accumulation in the liver and sometimes the kidneys and other organs. Whether one causes the other or whether some outside factor causes both is uncertain. The pattern has, in any case, come to be generally known as Reye’s syndrome.

In 1972, Dr. Crocker and his associates were beginning to find out a number of interesting things about Reye’s syndrome. One was that at least some of the symptoms looked suspiciously title classical symptoms of common kind: of chemical or insecticide poisoning. The cases they had seen were concentrated in New Brunswick and seemed too close to each other and too similar not to be related in some way, possibly through environmental factors. They began trying to isolate some exterior agent. After Timmy’s death, for instance, Dr. Crocker asked the Keddys for samples of all the insecticides and other toxic chemicals that Timmy might have come in contact with. Such attempts led nowhere.

The one condition that seemed common to all the cases was that all the patients came from areas which were consistently sprayed with insecticides by airplanes as part of New Brunswick’s long standing war against the spruce budworm. But it wasn’t just the geographic coincidence that was significant. Insecticides such as DDT are known to cause fatty changes in the liver, to alter immunological activity, and to have a toxic effect on nerve conduction — all of which sounded suspiciously as though they might be related to Reye’s syndrome. Equally important, combinations of insecticides were known to cause wildly different — and more severe — effects than any simple insecticide could
cause.

Dr. Crocker set out to find out what was being sprayed in New Brunswick — and to get some samples. It wasn’t easy. The government department responsible for the spray, natural resources, regarded the contents of its spray program as “classified” and offered him no cooperation whatever. So it was with everyone else he contacted in New Brunswick. Finally, through highly sophisticated tissue analysis they discovered the presence of an insecticide called Fenitrothion. Armed with this information, Dr. Cracker approached the distributors. They informed him he couldn’t have a sample; they sold it only in carload lots. (“All I wanted was fifty CCs,” he said later.) The National Research Council refused to confirm his identification of the pesticide. Finally, Dr. Crocker went to the provincial department of health, which procured him some samples.

Working on the hypothesis that the syndrome might be caused by some interaction between an insecticide (or a combination of insecticides) and a virus. Dr. Crocker’s team painted mice with chemicals — some with DDT, some with Fenitrothion, some with a combination of the two, and some with corn oil. The mice were then infected with a virus normally not fatal to mice. The team was excited by the results. As was expected, none of the mice painted with corn oil died. But in various trials, between four and nine percent of the Fenitrothion treated mice died of the nonlethal virus. Of the DDT treated mice, between six and 17 percent died. Even more alarming and significant was the
fact that of the mice treated with both, the fatality rate ran between 33 and 60 percent. Perhaps most important, there were fatty changes in the liver and kidneys, and death came after a sequence of paralysis and convulsions, a pattern familiar to researchers into Reye’s syndrome.

The results of the experiments were published in the international medical journal, Lancet, in the summer of 1974. “The possible role of exposure to combinations of insecticides in human viral susceptibility requires further attention,” said the authors. They concluded, cautiously: “The part that this interaction (between insecticides and virus) played in the Reye’s like disease of the children that stimulated this work is still hypothetical, but it is now a theory which is chemically and virologically possible.”

III. Aerial Attack
In 1952, New Brunswick was faced with a problem. It was clear that the province was suffering from an outbreak of the spruce budworm, a …. Read it all here: Biological Warfare in New Brunswick

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