A look back at the polio epidemic in Canada through a COVID-19 lens


As COVID-19 spreads internationally, causing closings, financial unrest and widespread concern, many wish to reconsider how Canada handled a comparable disaster: waves of polio epidemics that have peaked in the middle of the 20th century.

Although polio is considerably completely different from the new coronavirus, among the similarities between the 2 outbreaks, especially when one wants to be at the peak of polio in Canada, lie.

Polio was supposed to have an effect only on a particular age group at first, but then developed to infect people of all ages.

Provincial governments have attempted to quarantine the sick and limit their movement.

The majority of polio cases had been mild, but over time, extremely extreme circumstances began to accumulate, resulting in mass hospitalizations and thousands of deaths.

And some of those who were seriously ill wanted machines to help them breathe: the dreaded “iron lung”.


Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus and was formerly called “childhood paralysis” because it largely affected children under the age of 5.

Christopher Rutty, adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and qualified medical historian, said that he had arrived from a gastrointestinal virus, transferred by ingestion of contaminated feces, which generally precipitated “a slightly stomach disturbs”.

When the virus entered the nervous system, it became harmful. Depending on the severity of the disease, polio can completely damage the nerve cells that control muscle tissue, cause weakness in some limbs, and even paralysis.

To put it in the words of Canadian musician Joni Mitchell, who contracted the virus when she was 9 years old and described it in a 2000 interview with Inside Connection, “Polio is the disease that eats muscle tissue.

“If he eats the muscle in your coronary heart, he kills you; if he eats the muscle tissue that manages the flexion of your lungs, you end up in an iron lung; if he eats the muscle in your leg, it withers or your arm, it withers. “

Canada has been officially polio-free since 1994, but there is no strategy to fix it. The virus can only be prevented.


Polio had been contaminated for a long time before it became a disaster in North America – epidemics had been recorded in Europe in the early 1800s.

The first Canadian case of polio dates back to 1910, but it certainly didn’t get the country’s attention until much later. Waves of polio outbreaks are thought to occur mainly in summer and fall.

For Canada, the worst happened between 1927 and 1953, as a number of waves shook the country.

The second worst worst 12 months of polio for Canada was 1937. Nationally, there were nearly 4,000 cases of the virus – and about 2,500 of them occurred in Ontario alone. Toronto newspapers at the time explained how a number of faculties had been shut down in the midst of a panic across the province’s public welfare.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a stronger outbreak occurred, placing greater pressure on the health care system in Canada. At the height of the polio epidemic in Canada in 1953, there were almost 9,000 cases and 500 deaths from coast to coast.

The Royal Canadian Air Force was enlisted to help iron lung vessels across the country as more and more patients began to develop probably the most excessive form of polio: bulbar polio.


Before the fashionable day ventilator, there was the iron lung.

Bulbar polio occurred when the virus reached the motor nerves of the mental rod. It and various types of polio that attacked the muscle tissue in the chest or throat have affected the body’s ability to breathe. The iron lung helped weak people to breathe on their own.

When Ontario’s worst polio epidemic began in 1937, there was only one iron lung in the entire province.

Rutty said there was a “rush to find materials” and have machines built.

In probably the most dramatic accounts of the polio epidemic in Ontario, 27 iron lungs were made in the basement of SickKids Hospital in Toronto before being distributed to the poorest parts of the country.

The fans currently used to help people with extreme COVID-19 work by inserting a tube into the throat to supply air to the lungs, bypassing inflammation in the air passage due to the virus.

An iron lung is almost the exact opposite – all outside the body. The head of an affected person is proud of the machine, while the whole body is enclosed in what looks like a large steel coffin. A collar on the neck helps ensure that there is a tight seal, and the machine works through the use of a damaging strain to expand and contract an individual’s chest.

“A bellows forces air in and out, essentially creating a vacuum,” Rutty told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview. “It forces you to breathe. “

In the 1950s, iron lungs were more standardized than those of emergency SickKids, but demand had increased.

“There were shortages,” said Rutty. “A Winnipeg hospital had over … 90 iron lungs running at a time.”

What was clear was that iron lungs alone would not solve the disaster. A vaccine was being sought.


One of the problems with polio treatment was the lack of expertise in the virus itself. The researchers tried to verify the disease with monkeys, but it certainly did not provide many solutions.

“There was a lot of mystery around him for a long time,” said Rutty. ” It’s a virus. It is a human virus only, and viruses are problematic to manage. “

In the battle against polio, many remedies had been mentioned earlier that there was no solid evidence that they really worked. Beginning in 1927, the provinces stockpiled a convalescent serum made from cerebrospinal fluid, despite little evidence of its effectiveness as a remedy or prevention.

After a prophylactic nasal spray was tested in the United States – with no clear result – public pressure increased in Canada to verify it here.

During the 1937 hatching in Ontario, they conducted a highly publicized scientific essay on 5,000 children. However, the spray did nothing to stop the virus and left many children odorless.

According to excerpts from the London Free Press at the time, panicked mom and dad demanded sprays of their materials outside the experiment, and even fabricated their own, reflecting the desperation for a cure we saw in this time with COVID-19. Some have gone to hospital or died trying to acquire remedies that need to be looked at properly, like an Arizona couple who took a type of chloroquine used in aquariums in March – chloroquine phosphate – after US President Donald Trump touted the model drug as a cure for COVID-19.

Studies are currently underway to determine if drugs comparable to chloroquine and remdesivir can be used to treat COVID-19, but the knowledge is not enough, but to say positive.

In 1935, the first two trials of polio vaccines used in the United States only served to improve the tragedy there, as they were primarily based on an inaccurate understanding of the virus.

But when a last viable vaccine was developed, Canadian researchers were instrumental in producing a model that could very well be tested in humans.

Jonas Salk, an American scientist, is called upon to create the primary polio vaccine to be tested in humans. But his inactivated vaccine, which “appeared to work in monkeys,” said Rutty, was not prepared for human testing until collaboration with Connaught Medical Research Laboratories, part of the University of Toronto.

Researchers there had created “the first purely synthetic tissue culture medium” in 1949, said Rutty. It was a nutrient-base combination of 60 substances, and was not allergenic as it did not use animal serum.

It was known as “Medium 199”, and it solved all of Salk’s problems because it can work as a safe medium for the vaccine.

“(It) actually opened the door to human testing for the polio vaccine,” said Rutty.

The next downside? Produce the vaccine on a large scale for human trials.

Connaught launched the “Toronto method” in 1952-1953, which allowed researchers to create giant portions of poliovirus in rectangular bottles stuffed with 199 medium. At the request of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, an American base started with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Connaught shipped as many bottles of Medium 199 with polio as possible for large area control in the United States

The 1954 trial involved more than 1,800,000 children. On April 12, 1955, the Salk vaccine was declared a success, just a few weeks after the Canadian trial of the Connaught vaccine began.

But the tragedy struck shortly after.

Suddenly, 79 American children who had received the vaccine contracted paralytic polio.

“And the whole of the United States … the rollout of the vaccine has stopped,” said Rutty.

It was later found that due to a lack of properly performed batch testing of the vaccine, a company in the United States had produced vaccines that were not properly inactivated.

Canada was immediately faced with a dilemma: should we also stop immunization testing?

The Prime Minister at the time, Louis St. Laurent, wanted to cancel this system because of pressure from the general public.

But Paul Martin Sr., then Minister of National Health and Welfare of Canada, trusted Connaught. He also had an acquired curiosity in the fight against polio – he became Minister of Health just after his son, Paul Martin Jr., who would later become Prime Minister, contracted polio in 1946.

Martin Sr., who also had polio as a youth in 1907, argued that the Canadian trial should continue.

His resolution “saved the vaccine,” said Rutty.

The implementation of the vaccine in Canada has been cost effective and demonstrates the strength of the Canadian health care system.

He also confirmed confidence in the Salk vaccine, which made it possible to do it elsewhere in the world, by vaccinating tens of millions earlier than an oral vaccine was produced by Albert Bruce Sabin in the 1960s to exchange it. Connaught was also concerned about the Sabin vaccine trials.


Polio, like COVID-19, has asked governments to consider many different deadly diseases before, simply because of who was most at risk.

The virus mainly affected middle-class children. It circulated long before epidemics in North America, according to Rutty, and low-income households that had been discovered earlier in delicate types due to poorer housing conditions had additional antibodies built up over generations. So it was the middle class who had no group immunity when the outbreaks started to appear.

COVID-19 affects all teams, and people living in poverty are sometimes more likely to be on entry strains and more at risk.

But the main circumstances coming to Canada were largely those who were wealthy enough to travel abroad for vacations or cruises – and these victims captured the attention of the media and authorities from the start, long before the virus does not reach the entire population.

And as COVID-19 spurred discussions on how best to help Canadians economically during a health disaster, polio had to pay for comparable restructuring.

“It was a very powerful disease politically in the sense that it was not just something that came and went,” said Rutty. “It was a potentially lifelong legacy to have polio for many people. And private health insurance had its limits. “

Although wellness care was not practiced until 1984, the polio epidemics changed the thinking of Canadian officers, said Rutty.

New money apps have been launched to help households help family members with polio. Martin Sr. further launched a new federal welfare subsidy program in 1948, which helped provinces improve welfare providers, an essential step on the best path to a wellness care plan. be additional.

Rutty said that all of these crises can reveal points that already existed.

“This is where the COVID threat is, it hits the health care system and really exposes its limits,” he said. “And polio has done the same thing, really, because of its long-term impacts. “

As we move forward in the battle against COVID-19, Rutty said it is possible to learn from what we have done well in the battle against polio, each scientifically and politically.

He identified that “COVID generates similar types of collaboration, research and production initiatives”, when it comes to scientists collaborating in the search for a cure and a vaccine, “this which hasn’t really happened in the same way, maybe even since polio. “

The distinction between how Canada and the United States treat COVID-19 is also reminiscent of the era of polio, he said.

“I think … the differentiations between governments and between the way the United States and Canada treat polio are in many ways similar to what is currently happening with COVID,” said Rutty. “We see a rather disjointed and confused situation in the United States.

“COVID is generating an unprecedented government response (in Canada), in terms of public health and economics … which was a bit like polio,” he added. “Closer to polio than probably anything else, in fact. “


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