Not until the 1950s were rehab programs available for polio

Incredibly, polio, the dreaded virus that usually attacks children and can result in paralysis of arms or legs and even death, doesn’t always show symptoms, according to B.C. Healthlink. Or it can begin with misleading flu-like symptoms accompanied by stiffness in the neck and back.

Thanks to immunization, Canada was declared to be polio-free in 1994. As we’ve seen, however, it wasn’t always so, with almost a century of recurring epidemics beginning in the late 1800s, particularly those of 1910, 1927 and 1953, and usually in B.C. By 1934, almost half of Canada’s disabled population were victims of polio.

On the plus side, infantile paralysis contributed to the opening of the province’s first health unit on Vancouver Island in 1927 to deal with communicable diseases. The name that stands out is that of Dr. Henry Esson Young, B.C.’s second health minister, 1916-37. A physician and MLA for Atlin, he’d also served as provincial secretary and minister of education (1907-1915), was a principal in the founding of UBC, and a champion of graduate courses in nursing. Ironically, he’s most remembered for overseeing construction of the Riverview Mental Hospital, Essondale, rather than for Camosun College’s Young Building.

Polio was perhaps the worst, but certainly not the only, threat to public health in those days. TB, diphtheria and scarlet fever were prevalent as well as the usual children’s afflictions. Dr. Young instituted a system for tracking communicable diseases and, as Alison Hogan notes in her undergraduate study of polio and public health in B.C., by late 1929 every physician in the province was reporting weekly to Victoria by mail.

By then a serum from the blood of post-polio victims was available. But it only worked if injected within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms – nausea, diarrhea, headache, fever and stiffness – which were more suggestive of the flu.

More diabolically, a brief remission was often succeeded by an attack upon the central nervous system and paralysis. Sometimes, the only practical response in smaller, isolated communities without medical facilities was disinfection of living quarters and quarantine.

Hogan cites one case in which the government agent for Similkameen took it upon himself to authorize a general store to supply the afflicted family with "staple foods" not to exceed $30 per month.

Polio sparked provincial governments (particularly those of Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario) and Ottawa to devise and to develop "sophisticated and generous polio policies in this period". Here in B.C., however, Dr. Young or no, Hogan judges our early response to have been "more haphazard". It wasn’t until the mid-’50s that contributory hospitalization schemes and rehabilitative services were made available to all.

A key concern, obviously, was the ability to pay and, the B.C. Polio Fund, established in the ’40s, was almost overwhelmed by the post-war baby and population boom. Most devastating for victimized families was the need to care for their afflicted child at home, only those patients requiring respiratory care being hospitalized, and Alison Hogan paints a grim picture of what it was like: "…Nursing staff who were required to monitor and care for their patients around the clock, often at great risk to themselves; 23 nurses were faced with wards filled with helpless patients in rows of iron lungs [but] so prohibitively expensive that it was not always available to all who needed on, forcing some physicians to make agonizing choices about who should live or die…"

Hence the need to try to do whatever could be done and, as we saw last week, the establishment of the Queen Alexandra Solarium at Mill Bay with its pioneering (and for the most part ineffective) treatment of exposure of patients to the sun. Overall, governments seem to have responded well under the circumstances. How individual families overcame such tragedy and endured the burden of caring for a crippled child is a story that remains untold.

Today, two polio vaccines are available, the first perfected by Dr. Jonas Salk, and Albert Salbin’s oral vaccine. Both have proven to be effective and the World Health Organization has made them available throughout the Third World. For decades, polio has been in retreat.

However, as reported earlier this month, polio is making a comeback in Asia, Africa and the Middle East because of civil unrest.