Jan 23, 2024

Allison McGeer: a pioneer in infection control inducted into Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Research: Infectious diseases & immunopathology, Impactful research, Disruptive Innovation, Dynamic Collaboration
Allison McGeer smiling
Sinai Health
By Jenni Bozec

“One of the great things about my career has been seeing infection prevention and control in hospitals grow, seeing more people join the field and the good things that are coming out of that,” comments Dr. Allison McGeer as she reflects on more than 30 years as a physician and scientist.  

Having been recently inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, she has had the opportunity to think about her achievements to date. The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame (CMHF) celebrates Canadians whose work “advances health in Canada and the world and fosters future generations of health professionals through the delivery of local and national youth education programs and awards”. Six Canadian “medical heroes” are inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame each year and are considered “pioneers in their field, they are role models of excellence in the health field, in Canada and around the world”. 

Dr. McGeer trained at the University of Toronto in biochemistry, then achieved her MD and further training in internal medicine and infectious diseases. She joined Mount Sinai hospital in 1989, where she specialises in microbiology, and is a Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology in Temerty Medicine with a cross-appointment at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

Her career has been focused on infection control in hospitals and long-term care homes, having a ground-breaking impact on the management of patients and viral infections in clinical settings. Always at the coalface of infection control, she contracted SARS in 2002 while based at the Ontario SARS emergency operation center. She traveled to Saudi Arabia with the World Health Organization during the MERS outbreak to help track and control the spread of the virus, and worked in Liberia to strengthen infection prevention during the 2014/5 Ebola outbreak. Her innovative work on the control of invasive pneumococcal disease, which can cause pneumonia, sepsis (blood poisoning), and meningitis, helped develop an understanding of the impact of antimicrobial resistance and how to manage it for this bacterial infection. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has served on the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table and various other provincial and national Expert Panels - providing advice and guidance to federal, provincial, and local governments. Her clear guidance has been a strong and consistent public health message in her multiple TV, radio, and news appearances. 

Her work has influenced many aspects of infection control, from changing vaccine programs to protecting clinical and nursing staff, but most of all in attitudes toward prevention. 

For instance, she says, “20 years ago most clinicians didn’t recognize that respiratory viral infections could kill adults, so we didn’t focus much on vaccines. Healthcare was becoming increasingly complicated as we could transplant organs, do more complex surgery, and save more premature babies, but our infection prevention practices hadn’t kept pace with these advances. Following SARS, we managed to get the Ministry of Health to understand what infection control is, what an infection control practitioner was - what they did, and why we needed them - which resulted in more funding for these individuals. Now, testing for influenza in the hospital, surgical time outs, infection prevention bundles, and alcohol handrub are all obvious things to do and now commonplace, but building that system has taken many years of incremental steps towards prevention.” 

Being recognised as a “Canadian Medical Hero” doesn’t sit well with McGeer. “As human beings, especially in our healthcare system, we still undervalue prevention and I think we always will. This recognition is wonderful and humbling but it’s not about me. It is about having the prevention piece and the slow, incremental, practical work to do it well, recognized as something that is meaningful to Canadians and highlighted as an important contribution. It’s about a sequence of small advances that have brought infection prevention into the foreground through collaborative teamwork”. 

McGeer has trained many clinicians, infection control specialists, scientists, and microbiologists. Her devotion to the field and incredible knowledge and experience has a wide influence across Canada and beyond as infection prevention and control becomes more important. 

Microbiologist-in-Chief of the shared Sinai Health/University Health Network Microbiology Department and Infectious Diseases Specialist, Dr. Tony Mazzulli commented, ”Allison has been and continues to be a local, national and international leader in Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC) and the management and control of antimicrobial resistance, hospital-acquired infections, and the epidemiology of infectious diseases. In addition, she is an expert in vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases. Her extensive publication record is a testament to her contributions in all these areas. 

Throughout her career, Allison has also been an incredible mentor and teacher to learners at all levels including undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students. Her impact on these individuals has been immeasurable. Many of those who have studied under Allison and who have been taught by her have gone on to establish successful careers because of what they learned from her.”  

Dr. Vanessa Allen, Medical Microbiologist and Infectious Diseases Physician at Sinai Health/University Health Network, and former Chief of Microbiology and Laboratory Science at Public Health Ontario added, "Allison has built incredible capacity and expertise for infectious diseases in Canada and beyond, through the establishment and leadership of the Toronto Invasive Bacterial Diseases Network (TIBDN), her prolific research and expertise in addressing a broad range of threats including from SARS-CoV1 and SARS-CoV2, MERS, Influenza, Group  A Streptococcus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and a number of antibiotic-resistant organisms, and her investment in staff, students, and the public to better respond to these threats.   

Allison serves as a mentor to an innumerable number of learners and colleagues in infectious diseases, microbiology, infection prevention and control, and research. She recognizes the direct and indirect contributions of all of the people who contribute to her collaborative research (an example of this is that she hosts a longstanding biannual educational and research symposium for TIBDN for all participating staff to join), and is a gifted public communicator in all of her public interviews bringing transparency, nuance, and calmness to very challenging situations".

This story showcases the following pillars of the LMP strategic plan: Dynamic Collaboration (pillar 2), Impactful Research (pillar 3), and Disruptive Innovation (pillar 4)