November 18, 2017

Polio and the March of Dimes

Few diseases frightened parents more in the first 6 decades of the 1900’s than polio. It usually struck in the hot summer months, attacking the nervous system and causing paralysis. No one understood how or why people got it, but children were the most frequently affected. Early treatments were limited to quarantines and the infamous “iron lung,” a metal coffin-like contraption that aided respiration.
At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, polio would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide every year. Delphos was not immune to this dreaded disease and was especially hard-hit in 1948 and 1949. Among the numerous cases, a 38-year-old businessman left a wife and 5 children when he died from polio. A very young boy became the second fatality. Both died within days of being stricken. Another victim was “luckier.” After being stricken, Bob Bonifas spent several weeks at St. Rita’s and 3 ½ month at Warm Springs, Georgia for treatment. He returned home with a brace on his left leg and using crutches, but he was deemed 100% functional.
During those years local theories abounded. Dr. J.N. Sadler, city health officer, said people should keep garbage cans covered, be careful what they ate, and if they desired to go swimming, not to stay in the water too long. Many people felt that eating home-grown vegetables from canal–watered gardens was causing the polio. Spraying with DDT was thought to be a preventative. On August 18, 1948, it was announced the swimming pool would close for the rest of the summer. Four local doctors recommended closing the Allen County Fair (Delphos Street Fair) because of the large number of people, but in a close vote, fair board members voted to hold the fair anyway.
Back in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a polio victim himself, had helped found the March of Dimes to raise money for the rehabilitation of polio victims and to find a vaccine to prevent the disease. This was the first national fund-raising event with grassroots support. Like most communities, Delphos supported this endeavor wholeheartedly. Cards with slots for dimes were sent home with every school child. “Iron-lung” containers were put in all businesses encouraging customers to contribute. One year there was a Midwestern Hayride Show and another year it was a donkey basketball game. Various organizations, including the Jaycees, held fund-raisers, but the main event each year was the Mother’s March on Polio. On a designated night, mothers would canvass the neighborhoods, stopping at houses that had their porch light on to indicate they wanted to make a contribution. Not surprisingly, Bob Bonifas was the chairman of the Delphos March of Dimes campaign for several years. He was showing his appreciation to the March of Dimes which covered all expenses incurred when he had polio as it did for all victims.
The efforts of millions of people and their dimes paid off. In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk became a national hero when he developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Supplies were limited, but that same year, letters were sent home with all 1st and 2nd graders in Delphos in an effort to get them inoculated. With the availability of more vaccine, in April of 1957 hundreds of public and parochial students received the first of 3 shots at a clinic set up at St. John’s School Little Theater. The other 2 would follow.
Nationally, new polio cases dropped from 45,000 in 1955 to under 6,000 in 1957, the first year after the vaccine was widely available. In 1962, an oral vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin became available. It was easier to administer and much cheaper, which greatly facilitated distribution of the polio vaccine, and consequently the number of cases dropped to 910. Three years later, it was 61 and since 1979, there have been no new cases in the USA.
Polio is now pretty much history, but there are still reminders of the dreaded disease such as the crutches and leg braces shown in the picture that belonged to Bob Bonifas. See them as well as other medical items in our 2nd floor display.

Published in the Delphos February 13, 2016

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