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REMEMBER THIS: Nobody misses polio (3 photos)

In this week's Remember This, a look back at the days before a vaccine for polio was invented

My first employer was a polio survivor.

He was a very able man, business owner and avid golfer, strong as an ox from the waist up but his legs were much as they had been when he contracted the virus in childhood. They did not grow and they did not allow him to walk but those legs didn’t hold him back very much at all.

Until Jonas Salk introduced his inactivated poliovirus vaccine in 1955, parents of young children were always on the watch for any signs of the cruel disease especially in August and September when it seemed to like to make its annual and unwelcome appearance.

But what were they watching for? The symptoms -- fever, headache, fatigue, achy muscles, nausea and vomiting -- could be the signs of just about anything. In 10 days, stiffness or paralysis might set in and then spinal fluid could be tested. By then, it could be too late.

Poliomyelitis, often called infantile paralysis, has been around for a long time but the exact virus wasn’t identified until 1909. Outbreaks popped up now and then but nothing like the epidemics of the 1930s and 1940s across North America.

Health officials focused on the late summer connection and encouraged parents have their children avoid being in the sun too long, overexertion in the heat, eating or drinking with unwashed hands, or swimming in less than clean water.

That last suggestion was well scrutinized in the town of Barrie as the favourite bathing beaches were situated not far from where sewage was being piped into the bay.

Ironically, the advances of sanitation had partly contributed to the epidemics of polio in Barrie and elsewhere. Before community sewage removal, the polio virus was everywhere and people were constantly exposed to it, giving them immunity to it. That immunity was gradually lost as newer and cleaner waste and water disposal systems came in.

Of course, there was no going back to the old conditions so the challenge was now prevention and treatment of the disease. During outbreaks, schools and churches closed for weeks at a time. There were years where the Barrie Fair saw a drastic drop in attendance, and admissions to Royal Victoria Hospital were reduced to make room for polio patients.

By 1930, a serum made from the blood of recovered polio victims was the cure du jour. In February of that year, William Finlayson, MPP for Simcoe East, was called by Dr. Carson of Orillia to say that he had a small boy as polio patient but no serum could be found near Orillia. Finlayson dropped everything at Queen’s Park and arranged to have serum made and sent as quickly as possible to Orillia via his own personal car and chauffeur.

The run from Toronto was made in record time on very icy roads, within four hours, one hour of which was spent in a snowy ditch before a farmer pulled the car out. The boy was saved; however, no evidence exists to show that the serum was ever beneficial.

Next up was a nasal spray of zinc sulphate. It was created in 1937 during one of the worst polio outbreaks in Ontario. It too did nothing but destroy the sense of smell in some patients.

The research went on. Meanwhile, there was a time when the Sarjeant Insurance Agency at 49 Dunlop Street was offering family polio policies. For $20, a couple with four or more children could be covered for hospital, medical and nursing care, ambulance service, transportation and the use of an iron lung.

Nobody misses those days.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us.

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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