Polio: Forgotten but not gone



Submitted photo.

By Wayne Hildebrand

Neepawa Rotary Club President

Terror is a frightening word, but that was how Manitobans felt in 1928. A new disease hit the province.  The disease was impossible to predict or contain, there was no cure, no one knew how it spread and it commonly attacked children under the age of five.  An incurable epidemic viral disease that targets children; now that is terrifying!  What was the disease you ask?  It was polio.

Polio has largely been forgotten with the advent of the polio vaccine.  It may be forgotten, but it is not gone.  October 24th is Polio Awareness Day.  Just another awareness day, right?  Ask anyone over 70 years of age and you might be enlightened.  You may be surprised to know that polio has not been eradicated.  It still attacks children causing severe paralysis and sometimes death.   In spite of a 30 year Global Polio Eradication Initiative lead by Rotary International, the virus still exists in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.  The polio virus can travel very far and very fast.  If eradication efforts on polio stopped now, we would see 200,000 new cases of polio every year within 10 years. Polio would be a crisis again.   

Dr. Barry Hutchinson recalls in the early 1950s everyone knew someone from Neepawa and the surrounding area who contracted polio.  In 1953 polio struck 2300 Manitobans and caused 82 deaths; believed at the time to be the largest polio outbreak in the world.   “I knew three young men from this area who contracted the disease,” said Barry. “ I would travel into the King George hospital in Winnipeg with my father, who was a physician, where many polio patients with respiratory paralysis were put in an iron lung machine.  Later they came up with a rocking bed that went up and down to help the diaphragm and make breathing easier.  A big part of the fear was no one knew how the virus was transmitted.  Unwashed fruit was a suspect at the time, so everyone was careful to wash their fruit.”

Vivian Hildebrand has a vivid memory of being locked in the house by her mom for ten days in the heat of the summer in 1936 because of polio.  “My mother heard one of our closest neighbor’s kids had contracted an incurable disease.  She was scared stiff.  No one knew what the disease was or how it was transmitted, so mother locked us in the house.  My father lit smudges every day, as people thought mosquitoes were the carrier of the disease.  Later I learned that my neighbor friend, who I played with almost every day, had contracted infantile paralysis (as polio was called then).  It left him paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair for life. “

The first recorded polio outbreak in Manitoba occurred in 1928.  The last was a massive outbreak in the summer of 1953. The epidemic era ended with the development of a vaccine.  By 1955 there were mass polio immunization programs throughout North America.

Thirty years ago Rotary International took on the monumental challenge to rid the world of polio forever.  Since then, the incidence of polio has plummeted by more than 99.9%.  Neepawa Rotarians are among 1.2 million Rotary members worldwide that contribute financially to this most pressing humanitarian challenge.  To protect all children worldwide from polio, Rotary has committed to raising $50 million per year in support of global polio eradication efforts.   

October 24th is World Polio Day.  Your Neepawa Rotary Club is reaching out to raise awareness to help raise funds to eradicate polio from the world.   We are very close to ending polio.  If you are interested in contributing toward a polio free world, please contact any Neepawa Rotarian or visit endpolio.org