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. CP photo

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. CP photo

Survivors who missed out on polio vaccine hope for breakthrough against COVID-19

Polio is transmitted primarily through ingestion of food or water with feces of an infected person

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.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

school
Rimbey Christian School building projects nearing completion

New gym, soccer field and skating rink will be open to community use as well

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, confirmed eight additional virus-deaths Monday afternoon including one in central zone. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Central zone up to 1,249 active COVID-19 cases

Red Deer sits at 257 active COVID-19 cases

Kelowna RCMP Stock Image.
Bentley post office damaged, armed robbery at Subway

Sylvan Lake RCMP respond to incidents in Bentley last month

James Taylor of Rimbey has won $100,000 from a scratch ticket. (Photo submitted)
Rimbey winner scratches his way to $100,000 prize

James Taylor says store staff were almost more excited than he was

People line up at a COVID-19 assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccine approval could be days away as pressures mount on health-care system

Many health officials in regions across the country have reported increasing pressures on hospitals

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Town Council squashes mask bylaw

The bylaw did not make it past first reading, after a 4-3 vote defeated the motion

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Gaming content was big on YouTube in 2020. (Black Press Media files)
What did Canadians watch on Youtube during isolation? Workouts, bird feeders

Whether it was getting fit or ‘speaking moistly,’ Canadians had time to spare this year

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Team Manitoba celebrate after defeating Team Ontario to win the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Curling Canada wants Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park to be a curling hub for the season’s top events. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary facility set to become curling hub during pandemic

Curling Canada has provisional approval for Calgary’s hub-city concept from Alberta Health

Ash and Lisa Van carry a freshly cut Christmas tree while wearing personal protective masks at a Christmas Tree Farm in Egbert, Ontario, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Cole Burston
‘Everyone wants a tree and they want it now’: Christmas tree sales on pace for record

Anticipated demand for Christmas trees has sparked a rush by some to purchase more trees wholesale

Most Read