From Nose Sprays to Nursing Shortages: Managing Epidemic Polio in Manitoba, 1928-1953
Morton, Leah, Manitoba History
Many Manitobans over the age of sixty have memories of the recurring polio epidemics that struck the province in the mid-part of the century. Some of the more enduring memories associated with epidemic polio include woollen hot packs, admonitions from parents to avoid swimming pools, and iron lungs. These images and memories, though, are largely specific only to the last two epidemics. The first recorded polio epidemic in Manitoba occurred in 1928 and the last in the summer and fall of 1953. In that twenty-six year span, which I characterize as the epidemic era, there were six large-scale outbreaks of polio in Manitoba. The epidemic era ended only with the introduction of the vaccine created by American Jonas Salk.
The way polio was approached and treated changed throughout the epidemic era. This article focuses on the changing nature of the approaches to polio, concentrating in particular on attempts to contain the disease, the role of nurses, and patient management. Responses to the earliest epidemics, in 1928 and 1936, centred on medical attempts to control the disease through the use of serums and nasal sprays. Although finding something to minimize the effects of the disease continued to be a priority of the medico scientific community, patient management and the role of nurses became increasingly important, particularly after 1941. A review of the changing approaches to polio management helps make sense of the incurable epidemic viral disease that caused so much anxiety and dread in Manitoba, but that has largely been forgotten since the advent of the successful polio vaccines.
While Manitoba was not the only province to contend with multiple polio epidemics, it was arguably the hardest hit region, with epidemics developing in 1928, 1936, 1941, 1947 and 1952. The era of epidemic polio in Manitoba concluded with the massive 1953 epidemic. In 1928, there were 434 confirmed cases of polio in Manitoba. (1) The majority of those affected were children under the age of five. The tendency for polio to affect young children, coupled with the resulting paralysis, is why it was known popularly for many years as infantile paralysis. (2)
With each successive epidemic in Manitoba, polio became more virulent, and it began to affect older individuals. In 1941, 969 Manitobans were affected, leading to a case rate of 132.7 per 100,000 population. (3) While these numbers are quite high, they do not compare to what happened in 1953. Manitoba experienced a particularly large outbreak in 1952; so, polio was not expected to be a concern in the coming year. By November 1953, however, over 2,300 Manitobans had been stricken with polio, with a case rate of 286.4 per 100,000. To make matters worse, many contracted bulbar polio, which paralysed the breathing muscles, leading not only to the enduring iron lung images, but also to an uncommonly high death rate. (4)
Throughout the epidemic era, people worried constantly about polio. Even though the mortality rate was usually quite low, polio engendered great anxiety. Dr. Oswald Day of the Children's Hospital in Winnipeg was intimately involved in the pre-war epidemics. "I do not believe that there is any disease that can frighten people so profoundly," Day wrote in a 1929 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, "as poliomyelitis. In Winnipeg last year, it incited a terror among them much like that caused by the air-raids during the war." (5) To have made such a comparison only a decade removed from the horrors of the Great War is eye-opening. The lack of a cure and the inability to predict or contain an outbreak were part of the reason why polio evoked such serious apprehension.
However troubling, those issues were not the only reasons why polio was so feared. That had more to do with the target demographic and the results of a bout of polio. Until the 1950s, polio attacked young children most frequently; in 1928, over half of the individuals stricken with polio in the city of Winnipeg were 10 or under, whereas only 3. …