Classrooms full of kids keeping their distance. Parents wanting to keep their kids safe from a dangerous virus that seems to become more resilient over time. Sound familiar? It should. This is 1955, when Saskatchewan and the world were in the middle of a fight against polio.
Harvey Anderson, a resident of Saskatoon, lived through those days. Growing up in Wynyard, Anderson was just starting school when polio became “a thing.”
“We were terrified,” said Anderson. “I was five or six and my parents talked about polio a lot, just like everyone in town. It was scary… We knew nothing about how serious it was and what we could do to stop it.”
Polio (poliomyelitis) is an infectious disease caused by a virus and can strike people at any age, but children under age five are most at risk. It was diagnosed among sick children in eastern Canada as early as 1910, but became highly prevalent during the 1930s and post-war period. An estimated 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954. The disease peaked in 1953 with nearly 9,000 cases and 500 deaths -- the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The last major polio epidemic in Canada occurred in 1959, with nearly 2,000 paralytic cases.
At the time, public health departments tried to quarantine the sick. Governments closed schools, stopped travel and prohibited children from going to places like movie theatres.
It wasn’t until 1955 that a vaccine created by Dr. Jonas Salk was introduced to help combat the disease. Today, polio is totally preventable, thanks to this trusted vaccine.
“At the time, a few people raised concerns that Salk was dangerous and that we shouldn’t get it,” Anderson noted. “My mom and dad heard stories of some people having questions about the vaccine and its effectiveness, just like now.
But Anderson’s parents, like many others, knew the risk of not vaccinating far outweighed the minimal risk associated with receiving a vaccine.
Anderson and his mother drove to Wadena, a short distance from Wynyard, to get their polio shots.
“My mom and a friend of hers with a kid my age piled into the car for the trip to Wadena. It was a big deal, but my mom and dad and other parents knew getting the vaccine was the right thing to do.”
Harvey Anderson’s photo of him as a boy (ca. 1955) receiving his polio vaccination. This photo made Anderson a bit of a local celebrity and vaccine poster boy. Original photo courtesy Wynyard Advance-Gazette, supplied by Harvey Anderson
The vaccine made Anderson a bit of a local celebrity as his photo ran in the local paper. He brought out that photo again before getting vaccinated against COVID-19 this year.
Just a few days shy of his 72nd birthday, Anderson received his COVID-19 vaccine at Prairieland Park in Saskatoon.
Harvey Anderson receiving his COVID-19 vaccination in Saskatoon. Photo courtesy Harvey Anderson
“Being vaccinated just makes sense. I’m helping fight a disease that is really scary. Everyone should get a shot.”
Now that he is vaccinated for COVID-19, Anderson says he feels great, and less worried about what’s ahead.
“I remember how relieved I felt, even as a little boy, that I was protected from polio. I feel the same right now. It is one more small step toward a normal life again. Who knows where I would be today did I not get penicillin when I was three, or if I didn’t get my polio vaccine; and, who knows what may have happened to me tomorrow did I not have this COVID needle. It’s the right call.”