Larry Evans: Polio left its scars on Fort St. John and the North Peace

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World Polio Day is October 24, and thousands of Rotary Clubs around the world will hold events and fundraisers to recognize the progress in the global fight to end polio.

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The Sunrise Rotary Club of Fort St. John is hosting a screening of Breathe on Oct. 16 at at Aurora Cinema. The movie is about a gentleman who contracts polio and how it affects him and his family. The Rotary Club of Fort St. John is also holding a fundraiser on Oct. 19 called Pints For Polio, and is a beer-tasting tour that starts at the curling club. There will be bus transportation to take you to all the stops. Proceeds from both will go to support the eradication of polio.

The history of polio began with Michael Underwood describing a debility of the lower extremities in children, that was recognized as poliomyelitis in England in 1789. The first polio outbreaks in Europe were reported in the early 19th Century, and polio outbreaks were first reported in the United States in 1843.

For the next 100 years, epidemics of polio were reported from developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere each summer and fall. These epidemics became increasingly severe, and the average age of people affected rose. The increasingly older age of people with primary polio infection increased both the severity of the disease and the number of deaths. In 1952, polio reached a peak in the United States, with more than 21,000 cases.

It has been more than 60 years since the last cases of polio were seen in the Peace Country. Like everywhere in Canada, the U.S., and the world for that matter, the very contagious illness spread like wildfire.

An injectable polio vaccine was discovered by Jonas Salk in 1952 and, following testing, was made available to the public in 1955. By this time, many were crippled and many more had died. Time was of an essence to stop the disease. In 1957, an oral polio vaccine was developed by Albert Sabin, which was much easier to administer. Following testing the vaccine was licensed in 1962. Children lined up by the millions around the globe to receive the little spoonful of vaccine, or sugar cube laden with the vaccine. By this time it was critical to vaccinate everyone in the world.

The illness, which invaded the nervous system, sometimes caused problems with lungs, making it impossible to take a breath on your own. The physicians designed, and broadly used an “iron lung” to assist the patient with breathing. In larger hospitals, polio victims with disabled limbs were put into large hydrotherapy baths. This seemed to encourage use of afflicted arms and legs.

When the polio epidemic first struck Fort St. John in 1948, some 50 patients were treated. The only polio patient lost at that time was the brother of Sister Marcellina. The Elks club aided Dr. Cormack and Mr. Murphy, the Providence Hospital handyman, to improvise a “Clover Tank” for hydrotherapy for the polio patients. The army doctors assisted the local doctors at this crucial time and a hydraulic jack was improvised to raise and lower patients into and out of the water. This clover leaf shaped bathtub is now used for a flower bed near the entrance to the Fort St. John North Peace Museum. It is planted with lovely flowers every year and is possibly visited by some local pioneer that knew or was related to someone that benefited from it during the epidemic.

In 1952, news came of the death of another polio victim. This was Mrs. Gordon Ecklund who had lived in Taylor with her husband and infant. Mr. Ecklund was the son of a well-known Baldonnel farmer. Mrs. Ecklund was originally from Dawson Creek. Mrs. Ecklund had been admitted to Providence Hospital and as her condition deteriorated her physician, Dr. G.N. Cormack, put in a call for assistance from the Department of Health in Victoria. The RCAF’s hospital plane answered the call, flying into the airport here.

The plane carried a flight commander, medical man, a nurse, and a first aid man with respirator equipment. This team was in readiness to answer such emergency calls, and the big DC3 was equipped for any type of call.

Unfortunately the assistance of the rescue team was of no avail as just a few hours after their arrival the patient succumbed. She was the victim of the most serious type of polio, the progress was rapid and at that time there was no known cure. The date was November 11, 1952, and Mr. Salk would be busy in his lab testing the first vaccine.

As the polio victims recovered, no other deaths were mentioned until October 8, 1953, when Joseph Wagner, just 25 years old, passed away in the hospital in Edmonton. Joseph was the son of Leo Wagner, who lived at the airport subdivision at the time and later moved to Cecil Lake where he farmed with his son Tony and daughter -in-law Roxanne (my oldest sister). Joseph was a victim of polio and passed away just shortly after the dreaded disease claimed his elder sister, Martha, in Washington, D.C.

Joseph’s death was the climax of a series of misfortunes. This started when weeks previous he was stricken with a ruptured appendix while working on his house at his farm near Fort St. John. He was unable to summon help, although he fired his rifle with the customary distress signal of three shots, and lay in agony the four days before he was able to walk and crawl the long mile to his neighbour.

He was then flown to Edmonton and it appeared that he was recovering nicely from the operation when he was stricken with polio. According to his father, who had managed to make the trip to Edmonton to see his son, Joseph had been put into an iron lung when he was completely paralyzed.

“He was a very fine young man,” Duncan Cran had reported, as he had worked with Joe many times as a surveyor. Joe was brought back to Fort St. John by his sister, the late Mrs. John Budac, for burial in the Fort St. John Cemetery. Pallbearers from Fort St. John and Baldonnel were Gabriel, Alliouis, and Valentine Sperling, Paul Odermat, Raymond and Gabriel Wagner.

Polio has left its scars on the North Peace, but thankfully the illness is controlled and continues to be prevented as it is included in the Province of B.C.’s vaccination program. Infants receiving childhood vaccines are now protected against the disease.

In 1988, Rotary International partnered with Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the World Health Organization, Unicef and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work in a unified effort to wipe out polio off the face of the earth.

Rotary first started immunizing children in third world countries in 1985. Their main responsibility is fundraising, advocacy and volunteer recruitment. The vaccines discovered by Salk and Sabin in the 1950s were the beginning of the end of polio as the vaccines have eliminated polio completely from most countries. The number of reported cases each year world wide has been reduced to just a handful, but that’s still too many. That is enough reason to continue with the vaccinations.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John. 

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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