Great polio epidemic of 1953 — 2,318 cases and 85 deaths “exceeded all known Canadian and world figures”

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

Well after the polio epidemic had peaked in most of Manitoba, Bowsman closed its school toward the end of October, “owing to the high incidence of polio in the district.” 

Wading and swimming pools and playgrounds were kept open during the epidemic in Winnipeg, but Charles Barbour, the city’s recreation director, noted a “terrific” drop in attendance. He said attendance had dropped up to 50 per cent at most city-operated playgrounds.

Dr. Morley Elliott, the provincial deputy-health minister, announced there was no proof wading pools were a source of polio transmission, but “their avoidance might be advisable.”

In defending the provincial government’s decision not to order the closure of swimming and wading pools, Health Minister F.C. Bell said: “A thorough study of past experiences in previous epidemics in Manitoba, a review of all current literature, advice from competent authorities in Ottawa and the United States, have all indicated that the course of poliomyelitis is not influenced by compulsory restrictive measures such as quarantine or closure of public activities.”

Meanwhile, many youth sporting events were cancelled and some theatres closed their doors to youngsters.

“Generally it was felt that once an epidemic is underway, no restrictions can influence the incidence, and this opinion, I venture to say, is now shared by epidemiologists all over the world,” Dr. Elliott told the Greater Winnipeg Citizens’ Polio Prevention Committee in November.

One event that couldn’t be cancelled was the official opening of Winnipeg Stadium on August 15. It was reported a crowd of over 12,000 people turned up for the official opening of the new 15,000-seat home of the Blue Bombers to see bands, flags, costumes and fireworks. 

At the game that night between the Bombers and the Ottawa Rough Riders, every seat in the new $500,000 stadium was filled. An added bonus was the Bombers beat Ottawa 18-11 “in the first football game to be played in Winnipeg’s new stadium.”

In order to provide some relief for those confined to iron lungs, patients at King George Hospital started the Merry Menders Club, which had its own orchestra and a newspaper called The Flickers. Wheelchair-bound club members read to iron-lung patients and wheelchair square dances were organized.

Eleven-year-old Sharon McKenzie of William Avenue and nine-year-old Florence Welton of Portage devised their own distraction while in hospital by playing nurse and constructing a miniature iron-lung machine for their dolls. McKenzie, stricken with polio and wheelchair bound, and Welton, a rheumatic fever victim, came up with the idea after seeing a friend in an iron lung.

Nine pregnant women gave birth after being admitted to King George Hospital. A front-page photo in the August 12, 1953, Free Press shows Anne Rieu, stricken with polio at King George Hospital, proudly holding a photograph of her baby son born in the hospital, who had been whisked off to the Children’s Hospital minutes after his birth. The newspaper said it would be some time before the mother could “actually see him in all his chubby glory.” Jean Kanowicz gave birth to her baby (gender not named in the newspaper) while encased in an iron lung.

At the start of 1954, officials were warning the public to prepare for another polio outbreak that year. With two successive years of severe outbreaks in 1952 and 1953, health officials had no reason to expect 1954 would be any different. 

Dr. Elliott told the media that the provinces had agreed to pool iron lungs and respirators in anticipation of polio again striking in1954.

In 1953, the provincial government purchased 76 respirators, including five rocking beds and five portable iron lungs. With the 12 bought in 1952, the province had 88 respirators.

In a January 11, 1954, Free Press article, Dr. Elliott said there were still 60 patients in iron lungs at King George Hospital. Fifty of the patients were victims of the 1953 epidemic, while nine were victims of the 1953 polio outbreak and one had been in an iron lung since 1941.

While the provincial government provided King George Hospital with $12.50 a day for each acute care patient and $8 a day for post-polio care for each patient at Princess Elizabeth  Hospital, the city said the Municipal Hospitals still recorded a deficit. City administrator J.M. McIntyre said polio service was “extremely costly,” and in that field there was a deficit of $125,000.

He said the 1953 epidemic provided “ample evidence of the necessity for adequate accommodation for the acute communicable diseases which periodically reached serious proportions and our occupancy — which exceeded 80 per cent of beds available despite a reduced population in the tuberculosis service — surpasses all previous years’ experience.”

Of the 2,161 admissions in 1953, McIntyre said, well over half — 1,290 — were polio cases, with 186 requiring respiratory care and 127 having had a tracheotomy performed.

To improve polio treatment in 1954, the city’s hospital commission announced it was acquiring “adequate hydrotherapy equipment and expansion of our service to include vocational training and guidance.”

Recounting the toll of the 1953 epidemic, the Canadian Press  (December 10, 1953), reported 300 polio cases in Manitoba for every 100,000 people, or a total of 2,318 cases with 85 deaths. “Government officials say this incidence exceeded all known Canadian and world figures.”

Yet for all the expectation that another major polio outbreak would occur in 1954, it didn’t happen.

By 1954, Dr. Jonas Salk was conducting clinical trials of his new polio vaccine.

“A practical means of wiping out the crippling disease is finally at hand,” wrote Leonard Engel in the New York Times, after visiting the Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine where Salk developed the vaccine.

“A heavy responsibility rests upon him,” wrote Engel. “Not quite two decades ago, two experimental polio vaccines were given a premature trial. They were unsafe as well as ineffective, and the results were disastrous.”

“No one can be sure at this point just what the large-scale test of the new vaccine will show,” said Dr. Salk, “though it would not be tried on a wide scale if there were not good reason for thinking it would give some protection.”

Dr. Salk’s clinical trial over the course of 2 1/2 years inoculated 10,000 children in the Pittsburgh area. None of the children who received the vaccine developed polio.

History records that Dr. Salk’s “magic bullet” marked the beginning of the end of polio epidemics in North America. 

The vaccine was introduced in Canada on April 12, 1955, after being given approval by federal Health and Welfare Minister Paul Martin Sr., the father of the future prime minister of the same name. The senior Martin was stricken by polio in 1907 and Paul Martin Jr. contracted polio in 1946, becoming so ill that he couldn’t speak for a year. His father was so shaken by polio’s effect on his son that he vowed to push the Liberal cabinet to ensure all Canadians had full access to health care. 

When news came from the U.S. that 11 people had died among 200 people who had received the Salk vaccine, temporarily cancelling the American vaccination program, Martin Sr. was under tremendous pressure to do the same in Canada. Instead, Martin Sr. decided to continue Canada’s vaccination program. 

As it turned out, Martin made the correct decision, as the American deaths were found to have resulted from a bad batch of vaccine prepared by Cutter Laboratories in California. 

Martin Sr.’s faith in the scientists at Connaught Laboratories at the University of Toronto and his and his son’s experience with polio were said to have heavily influenced his decision to proceed with vaccinations. It was a gamble, but it paid off.

Martin Sr, knew it was the Toronto scientists who developed medium-199 in 1952, the first-ever synthetic solution to grow the polio virus. As well using what became known as  the “Toronto Method,” Connaught Labs was able to produce the polio virus in bulk, which enabled Dr. Salk to develop his vaccine and to make the mass production of his polio vaccine possible.

Dr. Salk’s successful polio vaccine made him a hero to grateful parents and children. His celebrity status was similar to the acclaim received by today’s pop-culture icons.

Elementary school children in Manitoba sent a 208-foot-long telegram of congratulations to Dr. Salk adorned with each polio survivor's name and bearing the statement of gratitude, “We love you Dr. Salk.”

Another 8,000 Manitobans, including Premier Douglas Campbell and Winnipeg Mayor George Sharp, signed a thank-you telegram to the creator of the polio vaccine.

Manitoba’s health department announced in April 1955 that by the end of 1956 all children from one to 15 years old would receive the Salk vaccine prepared by the Connaught Medical Research Laboratory in Toronto. Three separate inoculations for each child over the course of five weeks were required to provide protection against polio. The inoculations were provided free of charge to all school children in Canada through joint provincial-federal funding.

In December 1956, The Canadian Foundation for Poliomyelitis announced there had been 566 polio cases in Canada that year, a decrease from the 991 cases in the previous year. There were 18 cases in Manitoba in 1956. Most of the cases had been in Central Canada due to a shortage of sufficient vaccine to inoculate all children, according to A.C. Solomon, the foundation’s executive secretary. Most of Manitoba’s school-age children had been vaccinated, contributing to a low number of reported cases.

By 1962, Connaught Labs was licensed to produce the oral Sabin vaccine, which provided another weapon in the arsenal to fight polio.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reported 56 cases of poliomyelitis between 1965 and 1995, although most cases were the result of virus importation from other countries into closed Canadian communities where vaccination was not accepted for religious reasons. The last case of wild paralytic poliomyelitis in Canada occurred in 1988, the year Rotary International announced its plan to eradicate polio from the world through its PolioPlus vaccination program. 

Canada and the rest of the American Region were certified polio-free in September 1994, although it remains an ongoing problem in some Third World countries in Africa and Asia.