*this story was originally published in Canadian Disasters - 43 True Stories 2013 by Scholastic Canada. Copyright René Schmidt
Polio: The Childhood Crippler
Eleven-year-old Ken Cleverdon waited by the rink, rapping his stick against the boards, wanting to play. He wore brand new equipment; a Maple Leafs jersey, matching hockey pants, socks and new skates. The older boys looked at him with pity. One of them whispered, “He shouldn’t play. It’s not fair to him.” Another boy snickered, “His right leg is like a matchstick. He’ll just break it.” Ken had a shriveled leg from when he had polio at age three. Ken knew he was weaker than the others, but he told himself, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to prove to them I can do it.” Ken climbed over the boards and onto the ice, wobbled and almost fell. The other kids were faster. He didn’t care; he began skating after the puck.
In the first half of the 1900s one of the most feared diseases in Canada was polio. It usually struck children and was most common in the warm summer months. The official name was Infant Paralysis, or Poliomyelitis. Polio, for short.
Most people who caught polio never had serious effects. They might feel a fever or achy limbs or a headache for a few hours. But for the 5% who were seriously affected, polio could cripple or kill.
In victims like Ken Cleverdon, who spent months in the hospital, the polio virus attacked the spinal cord and weakened the nerves leading to muscles. Within hours the person was barely able to move. Some stayed paralyzed for months and their legs or arms had to be kept in splints to prevent deformities. After a period of rest, about half regained use of their limbs and many recovered fully. But some were left crippled, often with one leg or one arm being thinner and much weaker than the other. A few, like American president Franklin Roosevelt, never regained use of their muscles and were confined to a wheelchair for life.
The deadliest polio, bulbar polio, attacked the muscles used in breathing. Many of these patients died until the “iron lung” was invented. The patients lay in coffin-like machines with only their head sticking out. Inside, the air pressure changed rapidly, helping the victim to breathe. Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children was overwhelmed in the 1937 polio epidemic when dozens of children came in with respiratory failure. The hospital had only one iron lung, and couldn’t get new ones for weeks. Canadian engineers began to build their own, and soon Sick Kids had 35 iron lungs in use day and night.
In some years, Canada had higher rates of polio than any other country in the world. In 1953, there were 8,878 cases of polio and 490 deaths. Polio rates in the Prairies and Ontario were the highest. Children would suddenly come down with aches and stiff muscles or weakness. If a test of spinal fluid showed that polio was present, the child would be rushed to the nearest hospital that had a polio ward. Treatment for polio victims was paid for by the local government.
Nobody knew how polio was passed on, but everyone had a theory. Most parents kept their children from crowds. Playgrounds, beaches, sports fields and parks across Canada were almost deserted in summer. Other people suspected mosquito stings or flies, dog ticks, cold drafts, hot breezes, too much exercise, too little exercise, sitting up straight or sitting slumped. But nothing seemed to prevent polio. Only the onset of cold weather produced a drop in infections.
All over the world, medical scientists tried to create a polio vaccine. Vaccines are a tiny mixture of a weak or dead virus that is injected into a healthy person’s body. The body fights off the weak virus and creates antibodies to recognize and fight the infection in the future. Vaccines save lives all over the world, but making a safe vaccine is very dangerous work. If the vaccine is too strong, it can sicken or kill healthy people with the very disease you are protecting against. If the vaccine is too weak, it won’t give protection to the person needing it.
After decades of failure, American researcher Jonas Salk finally succeeded in making a polio vaccine in 1954. The new made headlines all over the world and made Salk famous. Connaught Laboratories of Toronto were the first laboratory able to produce this vaccine in large quantities.
But just as long-awaited vaccinations began in 1955, a tragedy unfolded. One of the companies in the USA made the vaccines incorrectly and gave polio to hundreds of healthy children. Dozens died. The American government immediately halted the vaccination program. Canada’s Health Minister, Paul Martin Sr., was under extreme pressure to stop the Canadian vaccinations, too. Martin, like his son, was also a polio victim. But he trusted the Connaught vaccine and took the courageous step to allow Canadian children to continue to get vaccinations. History proved him right. The Canadian vaccine was safe, and Canadian children became immune to the polio virus a year ahead of those in other countries.
By 1957 Alfred Sabin had perfected a vaccine which could be taken by mouth that made it even easier to fight polio.
Polio is still with us. The virus can be found in feces, and people who haven’t been vaccinated can still get the disease. All Canadian children are supposed to get five vaccinations in their early years. These vaccinations protect them from polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Polio and these other diseases still cause illness and death in countries that do not have regular vaccination programs.
In recent years, an illness called Post-Polio Syndrome has struck about 25-50% of people who were child sufferers of polio. It happens to adults between 35 and 60 years of age, causing weakening of the muscles damaged by polio many years before. Doctors are not sure why this occurs.
Ken Cleverdon is an old man now, but he remembers his treatment for polio like it was yesterday. “The six weeks I spent at Sick Kids felt like a lifetime. I was kept in isolation and away from my parents. The kind nurses and doctors became my family during that time. When it was time to go home, I cried because I didn’t want to leave them. There’s always been a spot in my heart for Sick Kids.”