When Elizabeth Lounsbury’s grandson recently asked her why we need to wear masks and whether that would be enough to keep the COVID monster away, she was reminded of her childhood, when the threat of polio was framed in similar terms.
“We thought polio was a hidden monster waiting to jump out and grab you,” she recalls of the waves of polio epidemics that killed thousands and crippled tens of thousands more in Canada from the 1920s to the ’50s.
At the time, lockdown measures were implemented for children, says Lounsbury, co-chair at March of Dimes Canada, who was eight years old when she first came down with polio. “It was like the current pandemic. The movie theatres were shut down. Swimming pools were shut down. We weren’t allowed to play in playgrounds or with other children.”
March of Dimes Canada started in 1951 as an effort to help mitigate and eradicate polio, says Leonard Baker, the organization’s president and CEO. “Early on, a group of volunteers known as the Marching Mothers went door to door to collect dimes to help find a cure and raise awareness about the epidemic.”
Polio survivors remember the iron lungs, children dying from polio, the efforts to reduce transmission. They also remember the relief of having a vaccine.— Leonard Baker, President and CEO, March of Dimes Canada
The funding supported the development of the polio vaccine, created by Dr. Jonas Salk, which led to the eradication of polio in most of the world, says Baker. “We then shifted our focus to supporting polio survivors before broadening our mandate – to helping people with disabilities in Canada lead a more independent life.”
For many, the threat of polio is now no more than a distant memory, but its lessons shouldn’t be forgotten, especially in light of the many parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic, he explains. “Polio survivors remember the iron lungs, children dying from polio, the efforts to reduce transmission. They also remember the relief of having a vaccine.”
Having experienced the power of vaccines for stopping a virus, March of Dimes Canada has now initiated a campaign titled Mission Immunity. The goals are twofold: one, to ensure the 6.2 million Canadians living with disability have convenient, barrier-free access to COVID-19 vaccinations; and two, to address vaccine hesitancy.
“We want to remind people that vaccines will be key for being able to return to a semblance of a normal life, which will only be possible if enough of us are vaccinated,” says Baker. “Some people may think they would only have mild or moderate symptoms if they contracted COVID-19, but who knows what the future may bring? Just as we have post-polio syndrome, we could be seeing a potential new wave of disability related to COVID-19 down the road.”
In people with post-polio syndrome, the virus becomes active again later in life. Lounsbury’s symptoms started to flare up when she was 35, leaving her feeling weakened and in pain. What’s more, her physician didn’t make the connection to her childhood polio, she says. “It wasn’t until March of Dimes Canada helped me discover post-polio that I found the support and understanding I needed.”
Over the last year, March of Dimes Canada has stepped up virtual engagement to continue delivering programming, support and services, says Baker. “Technology is helping us reach people when it’s not possible to get together in person.
“Anxiety and depression have skyrocketed during the pandemic. We believe people with disabilities may be disproportionally impacted. Many were already dealing with isolation and found their opportunities even more curtailed.”
Like most Canadians, Baker is looking forward to a time when social interactions can resume, when people can gather and children can play together – all enabled by the power of vaccines.
More information at marchofdimes.ca.
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