When Polio Walked the Earth: Notes on a forgotten disease


Editor’s Note: Permission to post the following article has been received from Peter Kavanagh, Random House of Canada Ltd. and The Walrus magazine.


It’s hard to capture the sense of panic that once gripped cities and towns in North America during “polio season”—summer and early fall. Parents kept children indoors, public places were deserted, quarantines were put in place, and victims were isolated from the healthy. Every year for forty years, from 1910 to 1950, an outbreak of polio took place somewhere in North America, as well as in Europe and in huge swaths of Asia and Africa. The 1953 epidemic was the peak of a new series of infections that had begun in 1949. During those five years, 11,000 Canadians came down with polio, 9,000 in 1953 alone. Newsreels and newspapers depict a country in panic. The medical system was overwhelmed and there was a severe shortage of doctors, nurses, and therapists to deal with the tsunami of cases. City and town councils argued with school officials and public-health officers about whether schools should be opened and pools kept closed, and sometimes vice versa. In big cities, those who had the means fled to cottages and resorts deep in the woods, away from population centres. In a recent Discovery Channel survey of the ten worst epidemics to affect humans, polio still gets top billing, over the 1918 Spanish flu, the Black Death,HIV/AIDS, and malaria.

Polio is a devastating disease, highly infectious, easily transmitted, and with no known cure. The disease attacks the spinal cord and the nervous system, and depending on the severity of the infection and the location on the spinal cord, it can paralyze muscles and tendons.

There are three basic classifications of paralytic poliomyelitis: spinal, bulbar, and bulbospinal, which are simply markers of the region of the central nervous system affected and the amount of inflammation and damage that result. The most common form, spinal, attacks motor neurons associated with the movement of muscles; while it can occasionally affect muscles on both sides of the body, it is usually asymmetrical. About 21 percent of all cases of paralytic polio are bulbar or bulbospinal, and these cases dramatically affect the ability to breathe. When you hear polio and you think iron lung, it is patients with these forms you are picturing.

My parents and their generation were no better equipped to deal with polio than their parents or grandparents had been. Polio was first identified in 1840 and the virus isolated in early 1908, but there is clear evidence stretching back at least as far as ancient Egypt of periodic outbreaks and documented occurrences of the disease.

When I was born, contracting polio was truly a crapshoot. The disease was almost Biblical in the sense of a plague sent down by God and touching houses seemingly at random. My mother and father, like any affected parents in 1953, would have been bewildered as to why their house was targeted and not the family two doors down. Doctors weren’t of much comfort, lacking any explanation for why some caught the virus and others didn’t.

Much of what we now know about polio was just conjecture in the year I was born. Research has proven that polio is transmitted orally from person to person through exposure to fecal matter, which goes some way to explaining why children not yet fully toilet trained are such a prime target. Places where people gather and the virus can easily spread—swimming pools, for instance—are probable hot zones.

Polio is a disease rife with truly tricky numbers, almost inexplicable. For every thousand children under the age of five infected by the virus, only one will show any symptoms; the other 999 move about as normal, except that each is a carrier. The incubation period between infection and the appearance of symptoms is anywhere between three and thirty-five days, and everyone is most infectious in the ten-day period before symptoms can appear. The numbers are crueller for children older than six, and adults, with one out of every seventy-five showing symptoms. The majority will experience what is called “abortive polio” or “non-paralytic polio,” whose symptoms include “fever, sore throat, headache, vomiting, fatigue, back pain or stiffness, neck pain or stiffness, pain or stiffness in the arms or legs, muscle spasms or tenderness, and meningitis.” The unlucky few, just 1 to 3 percent of those who show any symptoms at all, contract paralytic polio and experience loss of reflexes, severe muscle aches or spasms, and loose and floppy limbs, often worse on one side of the body. The onset of the actual paralysis will be sudden and is most often irreversible.

Because polio most often and most seriously affected the young, the disease was commonly referred to as “infantile paralysis.” In the year I was born, little was certain about the disease other than that name, which was enough to chill the soul of even the most devout Catholic.

I was infected at the height of the polio season, in August 1953, just around the time Jonas Salk was performing his trials. His modern medical miracle, however, arrived too late for me. As was the norm at the time, after I fell ill, my family was quarantined. I was isolated in hospital for a year while my parents worried and prayed at home. Isolating polio victims to stem the spread of the virus was known to be futile by 1940, but the practice continued simply to calm the public by creating a sense that something was being done.

The first signs my parents noticed—a high fever, my obvious intense discomfort and stiffness—had them panicked. All babies display a range of behaviours, but this was late summer and polio seemed to be everywhere. I turned out to be one of the lucky ones, because the damage could have been much worse. It is true that my left lower leg didn’t function as such, and this would have serious ramifications over time, but at two months old at least I was alive, and I wasn’t so damaged that I needed to be confined to hospital for years, as was the case with other children. My parents were forced to stay in Deep River, Ontario, my father for work, my mother to care for my siblings. I was entrusted to the staff at the Deep River Hospital and then at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children for a year, with my parents visiting when they could.

At the hospital, the staff first examined my stool, then took a throat swab and subjected me to a spinal-tap procedure. These were the only tests available for a relatively quick diagnosis. The gold-standard test involved a long needle and a tricky procedure. In the spinal tap (a lumbar puncture, to use the correct medical terminology) a needle is inserted into the lower part of the spinal cord and cerebrospinal fluid is drawn out and examined for increased white blood cells, higher-than-normal protein levels and the presence of the polio virus. If all three are present, odds are you have paralytic polio. In my case, all three were present.

The procedure is painful for adults and arguably horrific for children. The patient is positioned on his side with his knees drawn up to his chest and his back and neck straightened. The patient must be kept perfectly still, rigid even. For a number of reasons, I would undergo spinal taps at numerous points in my life, and each and every time one was ordered I experienced the closest thing I can imagine to primal dread. Even writing the words spinal tap causes my skin to crawl and my nerves to cringe. In some of the accounts I have read of the panic of the triage rooms in hospitals during the polio epidemics of the 1940s and ’50s, the eeriest reports are those of babies and toddlers moaning as the procedure is performed. I may not remember my first lumbar puncture, but at my core is a clear, affective account of the experience.

In addition to taking the necessary diagnostic steps, the nurses fed me, tried to manage my fever and aches and pains, and, with the doctors and therapists, attempted all the latest treatment fads. This meant immobilizing my left leg, massaging the affected limb, and trying to exercise the other limbs. The muscles in my left leg were paralyzed and immobilizing the limb was believed to be a way to prevent further damage and possibly give the muscles time to heal. The argument over the question of immobility versus exercise went to the very heart of medical authority. I don’t know how my parents reacted to the choice of treatment options at the time, but the way they responded to later medical quandaries and dilemmas, issues I was more aware of and involved with, provided me with some clues. My mom the nurse and my dad the authoritarian were each in their own ways respectful of authority. When faced with conflicting ideas, they would have been worried, panicked, and at a loss as to what was the right thing to do, before finally deciding that leaving the decision to the doctor was both the best and the wisest course of action.

As a baby, not only did I lack the means to tell nurses or doctors what or how I was feeling, but also it wouldn’t always have been clear how I was responding to the various types of treatments and exercises I was being given. Fixing my limbs and moving my limbs would have involved a lot of guesswork and day-to-day adjustments. As a growing baby, my development was soon completely out of whack. At a point when you might expect spontaneous turning and rolling and crawling, I was doing none of that, and no one was quite sure when, how, or if I might start.

I can never be certain how much of my time as an infant being treated in hospital for polio was centred on the Kenny method, named for a world-famous Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenny. During the 1930s she rebelled against the conventional wisdom of immobilizing, insisting that the best treatment for polio was heat wraps and active and passive exercising of the affected limbs and muscles. It is clear from contemporaneous documents that, as much as possible, nurses and physiotherapists were intent on finding ways to get bodies and limbs moving, and where that wasn’t possible, they put in place the aids and tools necessary to help those who had been paralyzed by polio to adapt.

In my case, at the age of fourteen months, that meant some tendon surgery, where damaged tendons are supplemented by the transfer of healthy ones to weaker areas in the body. You can still see a small scar that travels down the inside of my left leg where an attempt was made to try to repair or supplement the tendons that worked to raise and lower my foot. It didn’t work, but it is my understanding that it was a faint hope anyway. The doctors, the nurses, and my parents all understood that walking was going to be a problem, but they decided to give every option a go before sending me home. As a consequence of the tendon surgery, and in an effort to provide some stability to a baby who had truly limited use of one leg, the doctors put my left leg in a cast, an early version of what we now call a walking cast. The nurses and doctors knew that, once we were home, my learning to walk was going to be a family undertaking. My parents would supply the patience and guidance while I, not yet a year and a half old, would have to supply the stubbornness.

themanwholearnedtowalkthreetimes-220Excerpted from The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Copyright 2015 by Peter Kavanagh. All rights reserved.

Peter Kavanagh published The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times in April 2015. Michael Byers (michaelcbyers.com) has contributed to Variety, the New York Times, and the Wall Street 

For your further enjoyment:

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RI Quietly Launches ‘Rotary Global Rewards’ Program

KR-Ravindran-120pxK.R. “Ravi” Ravindran, President 2015-16

There was once a strong young man who was offered a job as a woodcutter. He set about his task with energy: The first week, he turned 18 trees into firewood. The second week, he worked just as hard, but was surprised to find he had chopped only 11 trees. The third week, despite working nonstop from morning till night, the number was six, and he went despairingly to the foreman to offer his resignation. “I am losing my strength. I can no longer cut as many trees as I once could.”

The foreman looked at the young man, who seemed to him in fine health. “Have you thought of sharpening your ax?” he asked.

“Sharpen my ax? Who has time to sharpen an ax?” the young man asked indignantly. “I have been too busy chopping wood!”

When we aren’t making the kind of progress we feel we should be making, the natural response is to redouble our efforts. Sometimes, though, the better response is not to work harder, but to work smarter. Look at your tools. Analyze your processes. Are you directing your resources in the most effective ways? Or are you pouring all your strength into chopping wood with a dull ax?

For the last 20 years, we have relentlessly beaten the drum of membership in Rotary. We set goals and launch campaigns, all focused on bringing in more and more members. And yet, our overall numbers remain the same.

It is time to sharpen our tools. Instead of focusing on the question, “How can we bring more members into Rotary?” we should be asking ourselves, “How can we add more value to Rotary membership, so that more will join and fewer will leave?”


One way we are doing that is with the new Rotary Global Rewards program, which launched in July. This innovative program allows Rotarians to connect with, and receive discounts and concessions from, businesses and service providers around the world. Individual Rotarians may submit their own business to be included alongside those with which Rotary has already negotiated relationships; the most appropriate offers will be added to the listings. We have also created the option of allowing businesses to return a percentage of their profit on each transaction to our Rotary Foundation, and several companies have already been locked into this part of the scheme. Each month we will update the list with additional offers that we may receive. I urge all of you to try it out by signing up on My Rotary at Rotary.org now. The more Rotarians participate, the stronger, and more beneficial, the program will be.

Much more than another loyalty program, Rotary Global Rewards is a new way to benefit from being a Rotarian, and being part of the Rotary network. It is another way to combine business and service. And it is yet another way to add value to Rotary membership. We cannot forget that our potential members will be asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?” We need to demonstrate the value of Rotary by showing that becoming a Rotarian will enrich their lives, as it has ours.


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Rotarians Urged to Promote Rotary’s Role in the Eradication of Polio

Klinginsmith_RayRay Klinginsmith, Trustee Chair 2015-16

Rotary and its partners have developed an endgame for the final eradication of polio, and the plan is working successfully. No one can predict the last case of wild poliovirus, but if our progress is sustained, it may come before the end of this Rotary year. What a victory that will be for Rotary and its partners – and for the children of the world!

Rotary also has a plan to publicize and gain recognition for its vital role in the eradication of polio. Rotary started its first immunization campaign against polio in 1979, when there were still 500,000 cases of paralytic polio every year. Its success led Rotary to launch PolioPlus in 1985, with the goal of immunizing all the world’s children against polio. It raised US$247 million for that purpose in the first three years, and it then joined forces with the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF in 1988 to eradicate polio. When the partnership was formed, a truly epic battle was joined, and Rotary was the catalyst.

polio-web-81-300pxNow we are in the final days of this heroic effort, and it is important for Rotary that the entire world is made aware of its contributions as a major partner in the eradication battle. Rotary International and The Rotary Foundation will do everything they can to publicize Rotary’s role, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. Every Rotary club needs to learn the history of the PolioPlus campaign and publicize the news in their local communities. We need the active involvement of every Rotary club in the world to spread the news around the globe.

Download the marketing tools available at endpolio.org, and read Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World, now available at shop.rotary.org. Share information about Rotary’s role in the fight to end this disease with your social networks online and offline.

World Polio Day is observed every year on 24 October, and it is critical that every Rotary club schedule an event on or around 24 October this year to spread the word in their local communities about Rotary’s role in the campaign to eradicate polio. Use the live-streamed updates from endpolio.org as a key element of the program. This is a great time to start our local publicity efforts for World Polio Day 2015. We are so close to our goal – don’t let us down! Your club needs to start spreading the outstanding news about PolioPlus!

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President Huang literally, is a member of a whole family of Rotarians

GaryHuangphoto-150pxBy Gary C K Huang President 2014 – 15

If you take a look at the Rotary calendar, it’s easy to see where our priorities as an organization lie. The Rotary year begins in July; in August we mark Membership Month, in September we celebrate New Generations, October is for vocational service, and so on, turning our attention to different topics that are important in Rotary.

It’s a great idea to do this, because it reminds us to talk about subjects that we might otherwise overlook during our busy Rotary year. But we all know that every topic on our calendar – from fellowship to our Foundation – is important. All of them are part of what makes Rotary what it is, and what makes all of us Rotarians.

In Rotary, December is Family Month. Looking back on my years as a Rotarian, I have seen how important family is in Rotary – and how important Rotary can be to our families.

Gary C K Huang and family

My wife, Corinna, chose to join Rotary just a few months ago, after many years as a Rotary spouse. All three of our children are also Rotarians. All of them joined their own club, in their own time. All of them have found unique interests in Rotary. As we have watched them find their own paths, we have been struck by how wonderful it is to have so many members of our family involved in Rotary service.

Rotary gives us something good that we can all do together. With Rotary, we always have interesting things to talk about at dinner. We are all involved in different service, in different clubs, so when we sit down together, we are talking about humanitarian needs of every kind, in every part of the world. There is always something new to learn.

Our conversations are also a wonderful way to teach our children, through our own actions, what is really important in life. They learn about what life is like in different parts of the world, and how all of us have an obligation to help others when we can. I can think of no better lessons to teach our families than the lessons of Rotary service.

I hope that in this Rotary year, many of you will encourage your family members to join Rotary, Rotaract, or Interact. Bringing your family into Rotary doesn’t just Light Up Rotary – it lights up your own lives as well.

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Who are the most important people in Rotary?

BKenny_John-150pxy John Kenny , Trustee Chair 2014 – 15

In his inaugural address, U.S. President John F. Kennedy made this often quoted exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

The same sentiments could be applied to the membership of Rotary.

Whether Rotary will survive or whether it will falter, whether our service will mean much to many or little to few, whether Rotary is known with respect or seen as a relic of days gone by, will be up to each and every Rotarian.

There is so much to be done in our world – to educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, provide shelter to the homeless. Our world is still ill divided, and the gap is not shrinking between the haves and the have-nots. But to whom much has been given, much is expected.

The most important people in Rotary are not the directors of the Board or the trustees of our Rotary Foundation, but the individual Rotarians working quietly in their clubs to assist those in communities who are less fortunate than themselves, for whom they know the need is great. This is Rotary at its finest: Rotarians identifying a need and responding to it.

For many, this is a special time of year. May it bring to each of you the blessings that it offers.

As we Light Up Rotary, let us remember that the future of our Foundation is in your hands.


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Anti-vaccine movement may have global repercussions

Originally posted on Status of Eradication of Polio Worldwide:

(This article was written by John Hewko, general secretary of Rotary International and published online by the Union-Tribune in San Diego. It is related to PolioPlus and the effort to eradicate polio))

Supporters of the anti-vaccine movement question the safety, efficacy and necessity of the very medicines that have so greatly reduced our children’s risk of catching a host of once-common but potentially very serious infectious diseases, such as mumps, measles and whooping cough. | UTSanDiego.com#article-copy

Supporters of the anti-vaccine movement question the safety, efficacy and necessity of the very medicines that have so greatly reduced our children’s risk of catching a host of once-common but potentially very serious infectious diseases, such as mumps, measles and whooping cough.

And then there’s polio, the disabling, sometimes fatal virus that was every American parent’s worst nightmare until effective vaccines were developed in the 1950s — and which still infects children in the…

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Top 10 things you should know about the new Rotary Foundation funding model

This is a followup to the May 2, 2014 post Trustees Approve New Rotary Foundation Funding Model

140616_riseleyBy Ian Riseley, Rotary Foundation Trustee, Foundation Finance Committee chair

I’ve been very involved in the development of our Foundation’s new funding model and have closely followed the questions being raised about it in social media and elsewhere. The new funding model for The Rotary Foundation was developed because our ability to continue “doing good in the world” depends heavily on the Foundation having long-term financial stability. In the interests of improved communication and understanding of the changes, here are 10 important things to know about the new model, which becomes effective on 1 July 2015

1. Rotarians and clubs will benefit

Rotary’s strength lies in the talents and dedication of its members and clubs. The recent recession showed that we must have adequate reserves in our Rotary Foundation to ensure that we don’t have to cut programs and services in times of poor investment returns, and the increased volatility in financial markets emphasized the need for an adequate level of reserves. The new funding model is necessary to ensure resources are available to support the work of Rotarians now and in the future. The Foundation’s current policy is to maintain an operating reserve equal to three years’ worth of operating expenses.

2. PolioPlus Fund contributions are not affected in any way

3. Endowment Fund Contributions are not affected in any way 

4. District Designated Funds are not affected in any way 

5. 5% of Annual Fund contributions are set aside from the World Fund. 

After Annual Fund contributions are invested, 50% will continue to go to District Designated Funds (DDF) and 50% to the World Fund. The 5% being set aside to help pay for the Foundation’s operating expenses will come from the World Fund, but will only be used if needed to pay those expenses or to fully fund the operating reserve. If they are not needed for those purposes, they may remain in the World Fund for grants.

6. 5% of cash contributions for global grants set aside

Under the current system, cash contributed in support of a grant by clubs and districts requires administration, but provides no investment income to meet the cost of that administration, because the funds are not retained by the Foundation for any length of time and therefore do not generate investment income. The 5% set aside from cash contributions for global grants will help pay the costs of processing, etc. It is not uncommon for many clubs to support a single global grant, and some clubs include payments from many members, thus requiring donor recognition to be processed for each contribution. Cash may also need to be converted into one of the 28 official Rotary currencies and then transferred to an international bank account for the project to be implemented.

7. Up to 10% of corporate gifts set aside

Using up to 10% of large corporate contributions for operating expenses is a well-accepted practice among donors to charities. By obtaining such gifts, the Foundation can increase support for the projects in our areas of focus. Our polio eradication efforts, for example, have benefitted greatly from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support. Up to 10% of these gifts will contribute to our administration costs, thus leaving more funds to support the grants for clubs and districts.

8. A communication plan is in place

The Trustees recognize that open, clear communication fosters Rotarians’ continued support of, and active involvement in, Foundation programs. The first step in the funding model communication plan was an announcement on rotary.org with a link to Securing Our Foundation’s Future. Watch for more information in Rotary media, coming soon.

9. Training and resources are being developed

Training manuals for officers and committees at the district and club levels are being updated, and webinars and e-learning modules are being developed. For details, contactfundingmodel@rotary.org.

10. The Foundation has a record of financial stewardship and transparency

Our Foundation has consistently earned high ratings for sound fiscal management from Charity Navigator and other agencies. Find more on Foundation finances and ratings.

Questions or comments? Please, contact fundingmodel@rotary.org.

I hope you will continue to make our Foundation one of your preferred charities. Every contribution is important and deeply appreciated. The projects and work we accomplish together as Rotarians are life changing.

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