Remembering Halifax’s terrible polio epidemics

When polio invaded Canada during the 1920s and into the 1950s, it was terrifying, cruelly paralyzing countless children and adults alike.

1953 was one of the worst years, with some 9,000 cases and 500 deaths across the country. Like today, distancing was one of the best public-health tools available. Schools, playgrounds, and movie theatres, closed as outbreaks flared up. When someone fell ill, their household was quarantined, with no one allowed in or out.

Parents were desperate to save their children’s lives and had considerably less information to work with, with no internet and little access to television. Unlike COVID-19, which is airborne, the virus that caused polio was most often spread through consuming fecal-contaminated food or water.  Although many people didn’t get sick, in some cases it infected the spinal cord and caused paralysis. In the worst scenarios, polio damaged the nerves that controlled the muscles around the lungs.

The treatment used to keep the sickest patients alive was horrifying They were placed inside a device called an “iron lung” that created a vacuum around their body, with only their head exposed. A device called a bellow sucked air in and out, forcing the chest up and down to help them breathe.

Nurses working at hospitals like the Victoria General worked 12-hour days.  One of their jobs was tending to the patients in the iron lungs, wrapping limbs  in hot towels to loosen muscles and stave off paralysis. In the background was the headache-inducing swoosh of enormous breathing machines.

Their protective equipment was ill-fitting and uncomfortable and they constantly feared infection. In those days, nursing students often billeted in former army barracks where they lived in isolation, with meals delivered from the hospital cafeteria.

Like today, there were shortages of medical equipment. The old Sick Kids hospital in Toronto was building iron lungs in the basement. The Royal Canadian Air Force flew mercy missions, ferrying them to communities across the country. 

Immunizations were the great turning point in the battle. First came the Salk vaccine in the 1950s, developed with the help of Connaught Laboratories (then part of the University of Toronto), followed by the Sabin vaccine in the 1960s.

Dr. Howard Markel, who teaches the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, says measures taken in the 1950s, like containment and closing schools, now offer some hope in fighting COVID-19.

“What we can learn is that our predecessors have met this  contagious crises with far less armaments and tools in their tool box,” he says. “They came through on the other end. And we can do this and we will do this with COVID-19.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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