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Society-changing infections - parallels to the polio epidemic of 1927

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Poliomyelitis – a.k.a. “The Crippler” or “infantile paralysis” - is a viral disease that primarily, and quite harmlessly, infects the gastrointestinal system. But if the poliovirus survives and is able to enter the bloodstream and nervous system it can cause damage to motor neurons in the spinal cord that connect the brain to muscles. Such damage interferes with muscle control, causing weakness or paralysis.

The arms and legs are most often affected, but the muscles that control swallowing and breathing can also be weakened or paralyzed, this type of “bulbar” polio putting the patient’s life in danger. The “iron lung” was developed to treat patients whose ability to breathe was affected, using negative pressure to force the chest to expand in and out.

The first significant outbreaks of polio struck in several parts of Canada in 1910. Though mostly infecting young children, newspaper reports indicated that the “strange epidemic” of infantile paralysis could also strike adults, often with deadly results. In 1916, the northeast United States was swept by an unprecedented polio epidemic, causing some 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. The epidemic soon spilled over the Canadian border, prompting the imposition of travel restrictions against U.S. visitors.

A new chapter in the history of polio began in 1921 when future U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, fell victim to “infantile paralysis” while vacationing in New Brunswick.  His case sparked a transformation in how polio is publicly perceived, significantly broadening its apparent threat. In the early 1930s, to raise funds for medical research and support for polio victims, Roosevelt spearheaded the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the launch of its annual “March of Dimes” fundraising campaigns. Inspired by the success of the NFIP, a Canadian Foundation for Poliomyelitis was established in 1948 and evolved into the March of Dimes Canada today.

Between 1927 and 1932, a wave of increasingly alarming polio epidemics struck, in turn, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, prompting provincial health departments to struggle with the management of the immediate threat, hospital treatment, and the long term physical and economic consequences.

During the summer and fall of 1937, Ontario was hit with its worst ever polio epidemic, with over 2,500 reported cases and 119 deaths. In response, an experimental preventive nasal spray was tested, but proved fruitless. Also, the provincial government established a free polio treatment policy and sponsored the fabrication of 27 iron lungs in the basement of the Hospital for Sick Children. Though used primarily in Toronto, these “miraculous metal monsters” that enable paralyzed patients to breathe were shipped to other cities in the province, including Kingston.

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In 1927 an epidemic of Polio hit the students at the Vernon Preparatory School, situated in Coldstream, BC, and run by the Reverend Augustine C. Mackie.  A history of this event is reported by Hugh Mackie, a brother who taught in the school, in the Twenty-Ninth Report of the Okanagan Historical Society in 1965.  This file is attached.

The_polio_epidemic_of_1927.pdf3.27 MB

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