Young girls are shown in the Polio girls’ ward at Sick Kids Hospital in a 1937 handout photo in Toronto. The mystery illness that paralyzed and killed mostly children across Canada came in waves that built for nearly four decades before a vaccine introduced in 1955 put an end to the suffering. That was too late for 14-year-old Miki Boleen who contracted polio for a second time in 1953, perplexing doctors who believed “the crippler” could not strike the same patient twice. Boleen, now 80, is hoping for a vaccine for COVID-19 as she reflects on the fear that spread with outbreaks of polio. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Sick Kids Hospital *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Young girls are shown in the Polio girls’ ward at Sick Kids Hospital in a 1937 handout photo in Toronto. The mystery illness that paralyzed and killed mostly children across Canada came in waves that built for nearly four decades before a vaccine introduced in 1955 put an end to the suffering. That was too late for 14-year-old Miki Boleen who contracted polio for a second time in 1953, perplexing doctors who believed “the crippler” could not strike the same patient twice. Boleen, now 80, is hoping for a vaccine for COVID-19 as she reflects on the fear that spread with outbreaks of polio. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Sick Kids Hospital *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Survivors who missed out on polio vaccine hope for breakthrough against COVID-19

An estimated 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954

The mystery illness that paralyzed and killed mostly children across Canada came in waves that built for nearly four decades before a vaccine introduced in 1955 put an end to the suffering.

That was too late for 14-year-old Miki Boleen who contracted polio for a second time in 1953, perplexing doctors who believed “the crippler” could not strike the same patient twice.

“I had the most incredible headache, like everybody had hammers and were banging on my head,” Boleen said of the first time she contracted polio at age eight.

Her second diagnosis left her unable to walk and put her in hospital for nine months in Winnipeg, which became the epicentre of the illness in Canada in 1953, the peak of the country’s last national epidemic.

Boleen, now 80, is hoping for a vaccine for COVID-19 as she reflects on the fear that spread with outbreaks of polio, which is transmitted primarily through ingestion of food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person.

Polio attacks part of the spinal cord, leaving some patients with a weakened hand or foot or a paralyzed arm or leg. For others, the viral infection that progressed quickly damaged the muscles in the chest or diaphragm, affecting their breathing.

The lack of a vaccine meant the suffering for thousands of polio patients like Boleen continued as they developed post-polio syndrome, sometimes decades after they became infected. The condition weakens the muscles that were affected by the virus, again making some survivors dependent on crutches or a wheelchair.

When she thinks of hospitals dealing with COVID-19, she remembers a Winnipeg polio ward lined with rows of beds filled with children, and where she was the oldest patient surrounded by death.

“The worst part was knowing that people were dying in the bed beside you,” she said from her home in Abbotsford, B.C.

“In the morning there would be an empty bed and of course if you asked the nurses where the person went, they’d say ‘We moved her to another room.’ But we’d been awake during the night. At least I knew that the person had died.”

An estimated 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954, according to the Canadian Public Health Association, which says 500 people died in 1953 alone, with the last epidemic occurring in 1959, when another 2,000 cases were recorded.

The association says provincial public health officials closed some schools and restricted children from leaving their homes but the measures did not stop the spread of polio, which is believed to have appeared in Europe in the early 1800s.

For Boleen, loneliness was a part of having polio, which kept her on a farm in Gladstone, Man., where she spent over three months inside and wore a brace from her right ankle to her hip while also using crutches.

“We were kids and we couldn’t go anywhere. The theatres were closed and everything that summer,” she said of 1953. “You couldn’t go to a nearby farm or play with the kids.”

Ventilators used for COVID-19 patients remind Boleen of mechanical respirators called iron lungs, which some children at the former King George Isolation Hospital needed to help them breathe.

“I was terrified I would end up in an iron lung,” she said of the long metal tubes in which patients were placed, with only their head sticking out.

Elizabeth Lounsbury, 76, chairwoman of Post Polio Canada, a program of the March of Dimes, thought she had the flu in 1951 when she was eight and had intense body pain and a fever. She was diagnosed with polio.

“It was August and the next time I looked out a window the snow was on the ground,” said Lounsbury, who has used a wheelchair for nearly 30 years.

“I had a tremendous amount of pain, mostly in my back, my neck and my legs. I can remember my mom saying afterwards that I would scream, sometimes for 20 hours,” she said.

“It comes back to you in snaps,” Lounsbury said of the memories that have been stirred up by the current pandemic, including the intense loneliness of being sick at home, without a TV and certainly no Internet.

“They were saying that we would have this until we did find a vaccine,” said Lounsbury, who now lives in the town of Hagar, east of Sudbury.

ALSO READ: B.C. records just one new COVID-19 case in last 24 hours

When a vaccine did arrive, Lounsbury remembers children lining up to get immunized outside the nurse’s office at school before an oral vaccine came along in 1962.

“They didn’t know if I should have the vaccine because I had had polio. But my doctor said I should have it. I found out later she was right because there are three different polio viruses and if you had one you might not be immune to the other two.”

Christopher Rutty, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said Canada had about 9,000 cases of polio in 1953.

“With COVID-19 the most vulnerable are in inner cities, in close quarters. With polio it was actually the better-off communities, it was the middle class in suburbs that were hit hardest,” Rutty said of the post-war era of hope that brought along a baby boom.

“Iron lungs were being flown around the country,” he said of deliveries by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Up to 90 of the “miraculous metal monsters” were used in 1953 at the hospital where Boleen was confined, as the illness that progressed rapidly created a crisis in resources, Rutty said.

A severe shortage of the respirators had the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto manufacturing 27 of the machines in 1937, he said of the year when Ontario suffered its worst polio epidemic, with over 2,500 cases and 119 deaths.

Isolated outbreaks of polio began in 1910 in various parts of the country and the United States before the first wave in British Columbia and Alberta in 1927, he said, adding epidemics then occurred in other provinces, reaching Quebec in 1932.

The Salk vaccine, developed in the United States, involved research contributed by a lab at the University of Toronto, Rutty said, adding Canadians had immediate access to immunization against polio, which was eradicated in Canada in 1994.

There is still no cure for polio and the World Health Organization fears COVID-19 is disrupting immunization programs in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as African nations where the illness still exists.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusDiseasevaccines

Just Posted

West Coast Duty Free president Gary Holowaychuk stands next to empty shelves inside his store on Tuesday (June 15). (Aaron Hinks photo)
Revenue down 97% at South Surrey duty free as owner waits for U.S. border to reopen

Products approaching best before dates had to be donated, others destroyed

TEASER PHOTO ONLY
Surrey singer soars into Searchlight song contest’s top 10 with ‘It Doesn’t Matter’

Argel Monte de Ramos is among ‘popular vote’ finalists, with winner to be announced June 22

A handful of White Rock Divers qualified for Junior Development National Diving Championships after strong showings at virtual meets earlier this spring. (Contributed photo)
White Rock Divers qualify for junior-development nationals

Six divers make cut for national event after strong performances at virtual meets

Cover of the 32-page Surrey First Peoples Guide for Newcomers, created and compiled by Jeska Slater.
New ‘Surrey First Peoples Guide for Newcomers’ seeks to ‘uplift and amplify’ voices

32-page guide launched Tuesday by Surrey Local Immigration Partnership (LIP)

Popular event/party band March Hare will appear in an online streamed performance Friday (June 18) featuring their salute to music of the `60s and `70s as part of BEC Entertainment’s Grand Summer Virtual Concert series. (Contributed photo)
White Rock-based BEC Entertainment continues Friday-night virtual concerts

March Hare and California Surf Incorporated featured

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

The Abbotsford International Airshow is back for 2021 with the ‘SkyDrive’ concept.
Abbotsford International Airshow returns for 2021 with ‘SkyDrive’

New format features a drive-in movie type experience, show set for Aug. 6 to 8

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens as Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents the province’s latest budget, April 20, 2021. The budget projects $19 billion in deficits over three years. (Hansard TV)
B.C. government budget balloons, beyond COVID-19 response

Provincial payroll up 104,000 positions, $10 billion since 2017

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Ocean debris is shown on Long Beach in Tofino, B.C. on April, 18, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Shoreline cleanup finds COVID-related trash increased during height of the pandemic

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reports litter from single-use food packaging nearly doubled

Doctor David Vallejo and his fiancee Doctor Mavelin Bonilla hold photos of themselves working, as they kiss at their home in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Doctor Vallejo and Doctor Bonilla suspended their wedding in order to tend to COVID-19 patients and in the process Vallejo got sick himself with the disease, ending up in an ICU for several days. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Love, sacrifice and surviving COVID-19: one couple’s story

COVID hits Ecuadorian doctors who delayed wedding to treat sick

St. Joseph's Mission site is located about six kilometres from Williams Lake First Nation. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake First Nation to search residential school site for unmarked graves

St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981

Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lotto Max jackpot goes unclaimed again

42 of the 64 Maxmillion prizes of $1 million were won, the majority were sold in Ontario

Most Read