While the world grapples with COVID-19, of containing the virus and developing a vaccine, it’s useful to look at another virus and how its impact on humanity has been almost eradicated.
At one time polio was as much a public health menace as COVID-19 is today. The infectious poliomyelitis can infect a person’s spinal cord. Paralysis is a possibility. So is death.
Polio had been terrorizing humanity for thousands of years. It was described by the ancient Egyptians. Renaissance painters produced images of people with deformities associated with polio.
The first reported Canadian case was in Hamilton in 1910. A young girl became ill and died in hospital. Polio spread quickly to places like Niagara Falls, Windsor and Toronto.
It didn’t go away. In 1937 alone, almost 4,000 cases were reported in Canada. Of those, 2,546 cases and 119 deaths were in Ontario. Many were children.
Polio’s impact in Canada peaked in 1953. That year, almost 9,000 cases were recorded. There were 500 deaths. Up until COVID-19 it was the most serious national epidemic Canadians had experienced since the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic.
But that all changed in 1955 when the discovery of a vaccine was announced. Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Thomas Francis were the lead researchers for a vaccine had taken years to develop.
Relief for Canadians quickly followed. It was a polio victim who issued a promise that Canada’s children would be protected. As federal health minister, Paul Martin Sr. promised that one million children would be inoculated by July 1955.
Between April 1955 and June 1957, roughly 1.8 million children in Canada, along with young people 17 and younger, were vaccinated.
By the end of 1957, four million doses had been dispensed.
By 1962, an oral vaccine had been developed.
Canada wasn’t declared to be polio-free until 1994. It took a long time – almost 40 years – to eradicate polio from a modern country with universal health care and an infrastructure that provides clean drinking water and excellent public sanitation for almost all of its citizens.
Polio is still a public health challenge elsewhere in the world. Yet its impact has been greatly diminished. Since 1985, Rotary International has focused on bringing the vaccine to the world. Over 2.5 billion children have been inoculated.
Only a handful of nations now report polio cases. And rather than thousands, the cases are now counted in the dozens.
Humanity’s triumph over polio didn’t happen overnight. But it still happened.
– Peter Epp