The mystery illness that paralyzed and killed mostly children across Canada came in waves that built for nearly four decades before a vaccine introduced in 1955 put an end to the suffering.
That was too late for 14-year-old Miki Boleen who contracted polio for a second time in 1953, perplexing doctors who believed “the crippler” could not strike the same patient twice.
“I had the most incredible headache, like everybody had hammers and were banging on my head,” Boleen said of the first time she contracted polio at age eight.
Her second diagnosis left her unable to walk and put her in hospital for nine months in Winnipeg, which became the epicentre of the illness in Canada in 1953, the peak of the country’s last national epidemic.
Boleen, now 80, is hoping for a vaccine for COVID-19 as she reflects on the fear that spread with outbreaks of polio, which is transmitted primarily through ingestion of food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person.
Polio attacks part of the spinal cord, leaving some patients with a weakened hand or foot or a paralyzed arm or leg. For others, the viral infection that progressed quickly damaged the muscles in the chest or diaphragm, affecting their breathing.
The lack of a vaccine meant the suffering for thousands of polio patients like Boleen continued as they developed post-polio syndrome, sometimes decades after they became infected. The condition weakens the muscles that were affected by the virus, again making some survivors dependent on crutches or a wheelchair.
When she thinks of hospitals dealing with COVID-19, she remembers a Winnipeg polio ward lined with rows of beds filled with children, and where she was the oldest patient surrounded by death.
“The worst part was knowing that people were dying in the bed beside you,” she said from her home in Abbotsford, B.C.
“In the morning there would be an empty bed and of course if you asked the nurses where the person went, they’d say ‘We moved her to another room.’ But we’d been awake during the night. At least I knew that the person had died.”
An estimated 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954, according to the Canadian Public Health Association, which says 500 people died in 1953 alone, with the last epidemic occurring in 1959, when another 2,000 cases were recorded.
The association says provincial public health officials closed some schools and restricted children from leaving their homes but the measures did not stop the spread of polio, which is believed to have appeared in Europe in the early 1800s.
For Boleen, loneliness was a part of having polio, which kept her on a farm in Gladstone, Man., where she spent over three months inside and wore a brace from her right ankle to her hip while also using crutches.
“We were kids and we couldn’t go anywhere. The theatres were closed and everything that summer,” she said of 1953. “You couldn’t go to a nearby farm or play with the kids.”
Ventilators used for COVID-19 patients remind Boleen of mechanical respirators called iron lungs, which some children at the former King George Isolation Hospital needed to help them breathe.
“I was terrified I would end up in an iron lung,” she said of the long metal tubes in which patients were placed, with only their head sticking out.
Elizabeth Lounsbury, 76, chairwoman of Post Polio Canada, a program of the March of Dimes, thought she had the flu in 1951 when she was eight and had intense body pain and a fever. She was diagnosed with polio.
“It was August and the next time I looked out a window the snow was on the ground,” said Lounsbury, who has used a wheelchair for nearly 30 years.
“I had a tremendous amount of pain, mostly in my back, my neck and my legs. I can remember my mom saying afterwards that I would scream, sometimes for 20 hours,” she said.
“It comes back to you in snaps,” Lounsbury said of the memories that have been stirred up by the current pandemic, including the intense loneliness of being sick at home, without a TV and certainly no Internet.
“They were saying that we would have this until we did find a vaccine,” said Lounsbury, who now lives in the town of Hagar, east of Sudbury.
When a vaccine did arrive, Lounsbury remembers children lining up to get immunized outside the nurse’s office at school before an oral vaccine came along in 1962.
“They didn’t know if I should have the vaccine because I had had polio. But my doctor said I should have it. I found out later she was right because there are three different polio viruses and if you had one you might not be immune to the other two.”
Christopher Rutty, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said Canada had about 9,000 cases of polio in 1953.
“With COVID-19 the most vulnerable are in inner cities, in close quarters. With polio it was actually the better-off communities, it was the middle class in suburbs that were hit hardest,” Rutty said of the post-war era of hope that brought along a baby boom.
“Iron lungs were being flown around the country,” he said of deliveries by the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Up to 90 of the “miraculous metal monsters” were used in 1953 at the hospital where Boleen was confined, as the illness that progressed rapidly created a crisis in resources, Rutty said.
A severe shortage of the respirators had the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto manufacturing 27 of the machines in 1937, he said of the year when Ontario suffered its worst polio epidemic, with over 2,500 cases and 119 deaths.
Isolated outbreaks of polio began in 1910 in various parts of the country and the United States before the first wave in British Columbia and Alberta in 1927, he said, adding epidemics then occurred in other provinces, reaching Quebec in 1932.
The Salk vaccine, developed in the United States, involved research contributed by a lab at the University of Toronto, Rutty said, adding Canadians had immediate access to immunization against polio, which was eradicated in Canada in 1994.
There is still no cure for polio and the World Health Organization fears COVID-19 is disrupting immunization programs in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as African nations where the illness still exists.