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Worst Polio Outbreak

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Last month we heard about the triumph of the Salk polio vaccine. Polio was a dreaded disease that could paralyze and even kill, and children were the most vulnerable. Before a vaccine, little could be done.

On this date in 1946, North Dakota’s worst polio outbreak was beginning. It struck dozens of towns, most prevalent among children younger than 10.

With the growing of number cases, North Dakota’s acting state health officer declared an emergency. He called for preventive measures that included isolating children awaiting diagnosis; adjusting the chlorine content in the water supply and swimming pools; and prompt reporting of cases. Hospitals banned visitors. Mothers kept their children away from movie theaters and public gatherings. Soda fountains and restaurants were viewed as major places to catch the virus.

After Bismarck’s first polio death, the city health officer urged residents to wash all vegetables before eating and to use only pasteurized milk. He advised residents to spray for flies, and called for people to frequently wash their hands – especially food handlers.

A special ward for polio patients soon opened in Fargo with money provided by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, also known as the March of Dimes.

A state Supreme Court justice began to raise money through the American Legion for an iron lung for Bismarck, where there was none. Iron lungs were enormous breathing machines. Justice James Morris said: “I will feel in a measure personally responsible if any child dies whose life might have been saved.” Local civic organizations raised enough money to donate two iron lungs for the city.

As the epidemic grew, Bismarck’s city health officer banned children 15 and younger from movie theaters and pools. With a shortage of nurses, St. Alexius Hospital called for volunteers.

In Fargo, to keep quarantined children entertained, WDAY radio began a telephone quiz program, with cash prizes for correct answers. Fair and 4-H events were canceled in Fargo, where the fall school opening was delayed multiple times.

Bismarck-area residents donated $5,000 for patient care, which was matched by the March of Dimes. One controversial treatment at the time involved wrapping a patient’s limbs with hot, woolen packs to “retrain” muscles.

In October, the state health officer declared the polio emergency over. 1946 had seen a record 492 cases. Twenty-eight people died, most of whom were younger than 20.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:

North Dakota State Department of Health. (1948). Thirtieth biennial report: July 1, 1946 – June 30, 1948. Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck, ND

North Dakota State Department of Health. (1956). Thirty-fourth biennial report: July 1, 1954 – June 30, 1956. Bismarck Tribune: Bismarck, ND

Oshinsky, D.M. (2005). Polio: An American story. Oxford University Press: New York, NY

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The Bismarck Tribune. 1946, December 16. Page 2

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