Autumn polio outbreaks in Central Alberta

Late summer and early fall can often be a very pleasant time of year.

There is often warm dry weather. The trees and shrubs start turning colour. The rural areas are a bevy of activity as another harvest gets underway. Even the onset of frost can be welcome as it eliminates the last of the mosquitoes.

However, up until 60 years ago, this time of year was also a time of quiet terror. Late summer and early fall were generally the time of year when the terrible polio epidemics used to strike, bringing paralysis and sometimes death.

The victims were usually young children.

Polio is a viral disease which has been around since time immemorial. However, for reasons not completely understood, it seemed to become more virulent during the first part of the twentieth century.

Initially, it seemed to strike the hardest with the very young. Hence, many referred to it as infantile paralysis. As the century progressed, the disease became more and more common among older children and adults.

Polio would strike after a person had a chill and/or had been recently swimming. The first symptoms resembled the ‘flu and included fever, coughing, and gastrointestinal upset’. Stiffness and weakness of the muscles would then set in. In severe cases, there was extensive paralysis, often making it difficult, if not impossible, for the victims to be able to breathe on their own.

The first outbreaks in Central Alberta appeared 100 years ago.

People blamed stable flies, mosquitoes and sometimes bad milk for the spread of the disease. Doctors had very little to offer in the way of treatment. Fortunately, cases remained fairly rare.

After a small outbreak in 1912-1913, Red Deer did not have any reported cases for nearly 15 years. Then, in the summer of 1927, a significant outbreak hit. The first children to be afflicted lived in the Blackfalds and Lacombe area. Soon, there were cases in Red Deer as well.

The Red Deer schools were suddenly closed on Sept. 15.

All gatherings of children, under the age of 18, were prohibited. Fortunately, there were no fatal cases in Red Deer. The schools were reopened on Oct. 3.

There were annual cases of polio after that, but the next epidemic struck in late summer 1935. Schools opened on Sept. 3, but had to be closed on Sept. 12.

The high school reopened on Sept. 23 with school for the younger grades resuming shortly thereafter.

The worst recorded polio epidemic in Alberta’s history started in the summer of 1952, but became particularly widespread and deadly in the summer of 1953.

In the latter year, the opening of schools was delayed until mid-September. The provincial authorities even asked the universities, colleges, technical and business schools to keep any students who were 16 years old out of classes for the time being.

In Red Deer, the matron of the Red Deer Hospital asked staff not to talk about the number of polio patients in order to reduce any public panic. Special isolation rooms were created for treatment. The local theatres and the public swimming pool were also closed in addition to the schools.

Tragically, there were eight deaths recorded in Red Deer and area before the epidemic finally abated. In several other cases, patients were left permanently paralyzed.

Fortunately, in 1953-1954, Dr. Jonas Salk developed an effective polio vaccine. In 1962, an oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin became widely available.

The number of polio cases dropped dramatically. In 1988, the Rotary Foundation, together with the World Health Organization and UNICEF began a campaign called Polio Plus to totally eliminate the disease world-wide. While the goal has not yet been attained, polio has now disappeared in most of the world.