A look back at the polio epidemic of 1953

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/10/2020 (727 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s interesting to look back and see how Winnipeg dealt with previous devastating illnesses.

Built in 1914, King George Hospital on Mulvey Avenue was considered one of the most modern isolation facilities in the world for the care and treatment of communicable illnesses. It had dealt with smallpox, influenza, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, whooping cough, typhoid, and cholera.

In 1952 the hospital was challenged with an epidemic of poliomyelitis, or polio for short, which causes paralysis of limbs and muscles, including the diaphragm.

University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections John Bryant reads to children as part of the Merry Menders Club at King George Hospital in December 1953.

The headline on the front page of an issue of the Winnipeg Free Press from September 1953, read: “Small in number, a fighting few stand polio siege.” The story went on to describe the pressure on doctors and nurses in matters of life and death. 

By mid-July of 1953, 30 per cent of local patients were adults over 20. The remaining 70 per cent ranged from toddlers to teens.

Of the 198 cases reported in Manitoba, 95 were treated at King George. Those with breathing problems due to diaphragm paralysis were placed in so-called “iron lungs,” which helped them to breathe.

Recovery from polio proved long and difficult, and often required physiotherapy. The usual stay for a patient was 34 days. The provincial government paid for expenses up to the 21st day.

Accordingly, polio fundraising events took off, with children raising pennies, nickels and dimes and adults contributing dollars to combat “the scourge of infantile paralysis.” Most of the money was used to procure much needed iron lungs. Garnet Coulter, Winnipeg mayor at the time, praised the youthful fundraisers.

He said the experience would teach responsibility for others less fortunate. 

Later in 1953, 14 iron lungs were unloaded at Stevenson Field (now Richardson International Airport) and taken to King George Hospital. There was no immediate need but health officials were looking ahead.

Gamma globulin was the drug of choice, given free to those who qualified under federal government rules. Connaught Laboratory supplied the serum across Canada and no one outside the Department of Health was allowed to distribute it. A few scammers were apprehended.

Dr. William Hammond, the American developer of gamma globulin, warned that the serum’s protection was temporary and uncertain against polio. It offered no benefit if you were already exposed, he said. Though it had been previously used in the fight against diseases such as measles, the doctor stressed that its effectiveness was not scientifically verified.

In 1953 there was an uptick in cases plus a nursing shortage. People panicked as the disease spread. They were willing to take chances with any so-called miracle. The fear was so rampant that even funeral directors called for “closed funerals,” afraid that relatives would spread the disease. The Kiwanis Club of St. Boniface cancelled its E. J. Casey Show and Carnival, although tickets were already printed. 

On Aug. 20, 1953, the Free Press informed the public that schools would open on Sept. 14, two weeks late, as recommended by the Advisory Committee on Polio.

That fall, with 20 victims in iron lungs and scores of crippled patients needing rehabilitation, plans were announced for post-polio physiotherapy at Deer Lodge Centre.

Many viewed the iron lung as an instrument of hope — others called it “a prison,” but the Drinker machine, named for its inventor, saved countless lives.

A definite boon was the polio vaccine introduced by American Jonas Salk, followed by an oral vaccine in the 1960s created by Albert Sabin, a virologist born in Russia and educated in New York. When it was finally released in North America, it virtually stopped poliomyelitis in its tracks.

As we look back, a few similarities to our own pandemic pop up. Let’s hope our health officials learn a few lessons from the past.

Freda Glow is a community correspondent for the North End.

Freda Glow

Freda Glow
North End community correspondent

Freda Glow is a community correspondent for the North End.

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