When January was the month for polio awareness

Published 9:07 am Saturday, January 24, 2009

During the middle part of the last century one of the most dreaded diseases in the nation and in this area was poliomyelitis, or polio, and also what was called infantile paralysis.

The use of the word infantile implied this disease only involved children and it always resulted in paralysis. However, both implications were wrong. In reality, during the first half of the 20th century the way polio could be transmitted from person to person was unknown.

During that era polio epidemics could suddenly erupt in various parts of the nation. These epidemics usually took place during the warmer parts of the year. Yet, this disease could be very selective. As one example, an entire family could be exposed to the disease and maybe only one member would be afflicted. Despite the use of the word infantile, supposedly healthy adults could be stricken with the polio virus. What resulted was severe sickness, sometimes paralysis of the legs or arms or the lungs, hopefully eventual recovery, and sadly even death. Treatment resulted in hospitalization, intense therapy, and sometimes even short term or long term life in a device called an “iron lung.”

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There were several epidemics of this disease in Freeborn County. One took place in the late summer of 1945 with 17 cases of polio being reported. There was a nagging thought that there was somehow a connection with the Freeborn County Fair where so many people were in close proximity to each other.

When the polio epidemics started to erupt, health department authorities would try to avoid occasions where people, especially the younger generation, would assemble. This resulted in the closing of beaches, theaters, fairs and even schools. And here in Albert Lea during August 1946, two closing decisions were made based on another area epidemic of polio.

By Aug. 16, 1946, five cases of polio had been reported in Freeborn County and there were also cases being reported in nearby counties in both Minnesota and Iowa. As a result, the county board of health asked the State Department of Health to issue an order to cancel the Freeborn County Fair, scheduled to take place from Aug. 19 to 23.

Dr. A.J. Chesley, executive officer of the Minnesota State Department of Health quickly issued the order to cancel this county fair plus the State Swine Show scheduled to take place during the same time at the fairgrounds. Al Ruble, the fair’s treasurer, said all entry fees would be returned and exhibitors, concession operators and others planning to come to Albert Lea for the fair would be told to go elsewhere.

Dr. Chesley also ordered the cancellation of the 1946 state fair and suggested that school year openings around the state be delayed. As a result, the Albert Lea School Board met on Aug. 20, 1946, and ordered the city’s public school openings be postponed two weeks to Sept. 16. St. Theodore Parochial School quickly decided to follow the same policy. Freeborn County Superintendent of Schools Earl Engbritson recommended that rural school boards should also delay school openings for the 1946-47 school year.

January became the polio month in 1938 for two reasons. First, there was a strong desire by Americans to find out what really caused this disease, how to prevent its spread, fund the search for a cure, and to help those already afflicted by polio. Second was this disease’s close association with the nation’s president at that time, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was born on Jan. 30, 1882, and was partially paralyzed by polio in 1921. He became the nation’s 32nd president in 1933 and served until April 12, 1945, when he died in Warm Springs, Ga. During his presidency Roosevelt used a wheelchair, leg braces and a walker for mobility.

On Jan. 3, 1938, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was organized. This group soon used the slogan “March of Dimes” for its annual fundraising campaigns. Entertainer Eddie Cantor created this slogan as a take-off on the then very popular newsreel film feature called “March of Time.” Just by coincidence, Roosevelt’s likeness was used as the illustration on the American dime coin after his death. Incidentally, donations to this fundraising campaign could also be made with coins with larger denominations and with paper currency.

In 1948 the Freeborn County March of Dimes fundraising campaign raised about $4,000, according to the city’s Community Magazine. And later, during the warmer part of that same year, another polio epidemic in the area created even more victims.

During 1952, the nation had 57,879 cases of polio, the highest ever recorded. However, by this time the three viruses causing polio had finally been isolated and identified. Also, research funded in part by the March of Dimes campaigns resulted in a polio vaccine being developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. This vaccine was tested in the nation’s largest clinical trial on 1.8 million school children. On April 12, 1955, the announcement was made that the Salk vaccine was both safe and effective. A few years later Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral, live-virus vaccine which nearly eliminated polio as a national health problem.

With the demise of polio, the March of Dimes had achieved its main goal. Then, in 1958, this organization decided to continue operations and made a shift to a new mission: the prevention of birth defects, premature births and infant mortality.