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Polio and its crippling effects
May 6, 2013

Before a vaccine was introduced in 1955, members of the community recall the devastation and fear caused by the virus

Editors note: This is the first of a series of articles on how polio affected the lives of those in the community.

By Kristen Miller
News Editor

In the mid-1940s and early 1950s, polio had become a most-feared disease.

People were urged to stay away from crowds in order to prevent the spread of the contagious disease, which led to paralysis, or in the worst cases, death.

So little was known about the disease, other than its symptoms and effects, that people were urged to stay inside, away from large crowds, and even avoid flies and certain food, which were suspected of carrying the virus.

“It was a terribly frightening time,” said Jeanette Servin, a Dassel native who remembers how fearful people were in the 1940s and early ‘50s, when the disease was at its strongest.

Poliomyelitis, also known as infantile paralysis, was greatly feared for the crippling effects of the virus, particularly among young people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus that lives in the throat and intestinal tract and invades the nervous system.

Approximately 95 percent of persons infected with polio show no symptoms, while roughly 4 to 8 percent of infected persons have minor symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, nausea, headache, flu-like symptoms, stiffness in the neck and back, and pain in the limbs, which often resolve completely.

Fewer than 1 percent of polio cases result in permanent paralysis of the limbs (usually the legs). Of those paralyzed, 5 to 10 percent die when the paralysis strikes the respiratory muscles, and the death rate raises with increased age.

According to the CDC, the virus was most often spread through person-to-person contact with the stool of an infected person, and could also be spread through oral/nasal secretions.

The first diagnosed case of polio in Cokato was reported in the Cokato Enterprise newspaper July 1921, and because the cause of the disease was unknown, there were many speculations on how it was spread.

“There were rumors on what was causing it,” Servin said. Cucumbers were even suspected, she said. “We were afraid to eat certain foods.”

An article in the same edition suggested flies might be the culprit and outlined precautions to take, including keeping children off the streets and not allowing them to play or associate with anyone who wasn’t well; practicing proper sanitation procedures, and keeping the house properly screened while swatting every fly that got inside.

In that same edition, a headline read: “Infantile Paralysis Visits Cokato,” which reported that Sydney Ahlstrom and Lucille Peterson had been afflicted with the disease, and that an epidemic was predicted.

That prediction would soon become reality.

For the next 34 years, until the first vaccine was introduced, thousands of lives would be affected across the nation each year, and residents of Dassel and Cokato were no exception.

The Aug. 15, 1946 edition of the Dassel Dispatch reported 1,134 polio cases were listed in the state.

It went on to read: “Although no cases of polio have been reported in the Village of Dassel or its immediate vicinity, the local board of health has requested that all children under 15 years of age be restricted from attending places where crowds assemble, such as public gatherings, swimming beaches, theatres, or visiting other communities unless absolutely necessary, as a precaution to prevent the spread of the disease.”

The following week, the Dispatch reported that the state fair had been cancelled due to “numerous cases of polio,” and Dassel Public Schools postponed the school opening date at the request of the state commissioner of education.

“[The year of] 1946 was a bad year,” said Carl Norman, a Cokato native who became infected with the virus in July, just a week after losing his 16-year-old sister, Pearl, to the disease.

Norman commented the summer was a dreadful time of year because it seemed to be when polio would strike.

“It was scary – almost panicky,” said Susie Keskey, who was a teenager during the summer of 1953, when Cokato experienced an outbreak. “You stayed away from large crowds.”

Children were seeing classmates being stricken by the disease and ending up at Sister Kenny Institute, a hospital in Minneapolis specializing in treating polio patients.

Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian military nurse, founded the Sister Kenny Institute in 1942, and revolutionized the treatment of polio.

Rather than the common medical practice of using braces on paralyzed limbs, Elizabeth Kenny’s polio treatment method was based on the idea that the muscles were only temporarily paralyzed, according to an article by MinnPost in November 2012.

Therefore, she found that hot packs and gentle movements or exercise were best for polio patients to enable them to regain mobility.

Keskey remembers her friend, Shirley Peterson of Cokato being sent to Sister Kenny for treatment of polio in August 1953.

“They put her in a stock tank of ice water to reduce the fever,” Keskey explained, adding how painful Shirley described it to be. She also remembers Peterson talking about losing the control of her limbs.

Peterson was among the 1 percent of polio patients who permanently lost the use of her limbs and spent the remaining 37 years of her life connected to a respirator.

Dr. Jonas Salk became a hero after discovering a life-saving vaccine for polio.

In the two years before the vaccine was widely available, the average number of new polio cases in the US was more than 45,000, according to the Salk Institute of Biological Studies. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910 and polio was completely eradicated from the US by 1979. Vaccination efforts continue to try an eradicate the virus from the three remaining countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

However, decades after the polio endemic, survivors are now beginning to feel the effects of what’s become known as post-polio syndrome, including Ruth (Fredrickson) Pasqualetto, who will share her story, along with other stories of polio’s crippling effects, in next week’s edition of the Enterprise Dispatch.

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