Jim Furlong: That Other Epidemic

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Polio kind of eased into the public consciousness in the summer of 1959 in Newfoundland. We were aware of it, but it didn’t dominate our lives. It broke out that year in Trinity Bay in a small group of connected families that had not been vaccinated with the Salk vaccine. That was in June and by July polio, also known as infantile paralysis, had made its way into Conception Bay and then a first appearance in St. John’s. 

DISEASE OF DIRT & POVERTY

I remember my parents stopped us from playing in Victoria Park that summer. There was a dirty slimy river running through that park. The river left Mundy Pond and went underground to appear again at the top of Victoria Park. It oozed down through the heart of the park to disappear again through a culvert and went on to the Waterford River. The river through Victoria smelled. It was filthy. Stuff grew in its water. Who knows what emptied into it before it made its way down from Mundy Pond? 

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It didn’t take a doctor to tell us to stay away from it. Mothers took care of that. My mom said, incorrectly, that polio was a disease of dirt and poverty. She said the same thing about tuberculosis. That’s the way mothers were in those days. By the way, authorities thought that Shea Heights and Mundy Pond might be hard hit areas in St. John’s because they weren’t on the main water supply of the city. Authorities were wrong. It was the crowded little streets in the centre of the city that became a “cluster” of polio infections.

 THE OUTBREAK CURVE

Sometime in August the decision was made to keep schools from re-opening in September. The movie theatres stayed open, although swimming pools closed. That’s the part I remember most. An extra month of vacation because of polio. To little boys like me that outweighed any public health concern. In September the number of  polio cases dropped significantly. The outbreak curve was  “flattened” as we say in the world of the current Coronavirus. By October we were back in school and polio had ceased to be a scourge upon the land. 

I had one friend that contracted poliomyelitis. He wasn’t permanently affected. He awoke one morning and couldn’t walk. He was sent to the Fever Hospital  down by the penitentiary. Eventually he recovered. His only strong memory is of his mom picking him up when he was discharged and the food in the hospital being more varied than home. He was a lucky little boy. The total number of people stricken in 1959 was 137; almost all of them children. There were twelve deaths that summer. This year in particular, I remember it.

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5 thoughts on “Jim Furlong: That Other Epidemic

  1. Donald Hodder, MD
    April 22, 2020
    Reply

    There is an official epidemiological article on this epidemic in the Canadian Medical Association Journal for September 22, 1962, available online. I was teaching in Dildo 1958 – 1960. The first case was in July 1959 in Blaketown, a few miles from my boarding house. The next cases were in New Harbour and Whitbourne. It eventually spread around the province. It mostly affected young children with two-thirds of cases in the four years old and below group. There were 139 cases of paralytic poliomyelitis and 36 cases of aseptic meningiitis/ There were 12 deaths with a mortality rate of 8.6 %.

    • Name: Donald Hodder, MD
    • Email: hodder218@gmail.com
    • : I give permissions to the Newfoundland Herald to use my comment in future publications
  2. Genny
    March 24, 2021
    Reply

    Read your article – I am from Newfoundland and I seem to recall that polio had been in my area of the province in the earlier part i.e. up to 1954 – Bonavista Bay area – am I correct in assuming that you are referring to a specific outbreak and not a general outbreak throughout the province – noted the date 1959 in particular as I had left our beautiful province in 1953 – am I in error on thsi?
    Good to read about the past when it comes to pandemics and how we just accepted the information and regulations applied to us – today, too much info on everything – too many experts.

    Thanks.

    • Name: Genny
    • Email: genny3@eastlink.ca
    • : I give permissions to the Newfoundland Herald to use my comment in future publications
  3. Rosemary Morgan
    May 12, 2021
    Reply

    Jim Furlong where would I see the original photo above and the year it was taken.

    • Name: Rosemary Morgan
    • Email: rosemarymorgan@nl.rogers.com
    • : I give permissions to the Newfoundland Herald to use my comment in future publications
    • Chris
      June 5, 2021
      Reply

      The photo in the article was taken in Edmonton. It’s on the Canadian Public Health’s website – if you google Polio in Canada in it should be the 1st link.

      • Name: Chris
      • Email: Catherine.Brosha@bridgehead.ca
      • : I give permissions to the Newfoundland Herald to use my comment in future publications
  4. Brian Thomas
    June 5, 2021
    Reply

    My sister Patricia ( b: 1952 ) Grand Falls was as I’m told by my parents, the first case of polio in Newfoundland. I was born 14 months later ( 1953 ) at Grand Falls. She was flown out of Rushy Pond to St. John’s and stayed at ” The Sunshine Camp ” ***In the 1950s the Sunshine Camp for Crippled Children, the site of the present day Rotary Park, was founded to treat children with physical disabilities resulting from the Polio Epidemics of the ’50s.***
    In 1954, we moved to Lethbridge near Clarenville so that we could be closer to her during treatment. In 1964 we moved back to Grand Falls. My sister became a teacher but passed away with cancer in 1985 at the age of 33.

    • Name: Brian Thomas
    • Email: b.thomas@nf.sympatico.ca
    • : I give permissions to the Newfoundland Herald to use my comment in future publications

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