Polio struck terror in the hearts of parents

(Part 2) By 1934, "almost half of Canada’s disabled population could be traced to polio".

Although he was anything but middle class, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the most famous victim of the so-called "middle class plague," polio. Too, he was an adult when struck down, again in contradiction of poliomyelitis’ better known name, infantile paralysis, because it targets susceptible children.

(We can thank FDR, by the way, for the ongoing and phenomenally successful March of Dimes which was begun in the 1930s as a fundraising campaign for a polio vaccine.) Canada has suffered repeated epidemics of this highly contagious nerve and muscle-wasting virus (especially in 1910, 1927 and 1953) that destroyed lives and devastated families. Today it’s totally preventable thanks to improved hygienic awareness and the famous Salk vaccine.

Locally, from 1927-1958, we had the Queen Alexandra Solarium in Mill Bay, on the site of today’s Brentwood College. Solarium came from the fact that initially and, alas, naively, treatment consisted of exposing polio victims to "the sun all morning, with a minimum of clothing…"

Canada was among those nations which were hardest hit and the recurring crises presented a vicious learning curve for federal, provincial and territorial governments challenged (there was no Medicare program in those days) with providing medical assistance and hospitalization, and for the medical profession struggling first to achieve effective treatment then prevention. Not to mention the families, particularly those living in smaller and outlying communities with little medical infrastructure, who were overwhelmed emotionally and financially.

While considerable progress had been made in combatting other infectious diseases, polio was a wild card, striking randomly at first then in clusters, usually in western Canada before working its way across the country. With a cause and a cure unknown, with its often deceptively flu-like symptoms that could (but not always) quickly lead to a permanent loss of mobility and impair the ability to breathe, it struck terror in the hearts of parents.

Unlike in the U.S., where efforts to deal with recurring epidemics came mostly from the private sector, in Canada (1927-1953) the provinces worked commendably if not altogether efficiently. The problems were immense and the first attempts to produce anti-polio serums (collected from the blood of recovered polio victims and tested on hapless laboratory monkeys) and stockpiled in public depots across the country, were failures. So much so that, by 1934, "almost half of Canada’s disabled population could be traced to polio, a poor testament to the efficacy of the so-called answer to polio".

Another 4,000 known cases were reported in 1937, some of them bulbar polio (the most severe form which can impair breathing), from B.C. to Ontario, and 119 deaths. In all of Canada there was a single iron lung available, invented just nine years before by Harvard medical researcher Philip Donker and in service in Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children.

Little wonder then that panic took hold that summer and public schools were closed.

That was especially true in Toronto which was hardest hit. For its part, the Ontario government paid for construction of 27 iron lungs over six weeks and rushed them to where they were most needed throughout the province. To deal with rehabilitation, the province then created a program of standardized treatment with up to three weeks'(!) hospitalization for paralytic cases. Patients were then turned over to their parents who’d been given a crash course in caring for their paralyzed child.

Think about it! Three weeks of rudimentary instruction on how to care for your crippled child, some follow-up visits by a nurse, and you were on your own! Ever so slowly, improved hospitalization programs were initiated in Ontario and elsewhere through the early ’40s. But the real battle – that of a cure and prevention – remained an elusive target. Experiments in the States and in Canada to perfect a prophylactic nasal spray failed and two trial polio vaccines in the U.S. failed the test with lethal results.

Leaving doctors able to do little more than to prescribe rest and immobilization.