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Polio epidemic in Huerfano County

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — August is one of those unkind months often bringing tragedy and sadness into our lives. Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, this came in the form of polio.
Poliomyelitis is considered to be an ancient disease. Some archaeologists working with millennia-old Egyptian carvings and paintings noted likenesses of children walking with canes, and adults with withered limbs, and these conditions they attributed to polio. The disease is caused by a virus that infects the nervous system and frequently results in some degree of paralysis, most often in arms and legs. It seems to target children, but adults can also get the contagious disease, which sometimes produces no symptoms whatsoever.
Polio, then called infantile paralysis because of the higher incidence among the young, was first recognized in 1840. The first widespread epidemic in the United States occurred around 1900, and some 50 years later the country’s annual death toll from polio was more than 3,000, with another 21,000+ paralyzed.
The most famous victim of the disease was Franklin D. Roosevelt, struck in 1921 at the age of 39. After his inauguration as president in 1933, Roosevelt promoted the fight against infantile paralysis through his annual birthday balls. “Dance so others may walk!” read the advertising. In 1934, Roosevelt’s birthday dances were held in St. Mary School gym, Elks Lodge, Maccabee Hall and Eagles Hall. Both La Veta and Gardner also had dances. The 1935 affair in Walsenburg was attended by more than 1,000 dancers and raised more than $300 – a pretty hefty amount considering it was in the midst of the Great Depression.
In 1938 Roosevelt pushed for the formation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. This became more popularly known as the March of Dimes.
Huerfano County got its first intimation of the horrors of the disease in August 1937 with the death of William Hulsey, 16. Young Hulsey had been the president of the sophomore class at Huerfano County High School the previous year. This death caused a panic among students and parents, not to mention health officials. Forty-five traveling nurses were dispatched to the county from all over Colorado, and they tested students for several weeks. They did not find any other young people infected, and there must have been a collective sigh of relief. However, the following year saw two cases in Walsenburg.
In August 1943, health officers confidently announced the county was “entirely free of infantile paralysis danger.” By mid-October, two cases had been reported and the victims sent to Pueblo for hospital treatment. In 1945, the disease claimed the life of Eloy Abila, a young father just 29 years old.
Nationwide, polio was gaining ground. Many cities had closed swimming pools and playgrounds where children gathered. In August 1946, Walsenburg Health Officer Dr. W.S. Chapman warned that “children of poliomyelitis age” should avoid outdoor toilets and public dances. The First Street Playground and Martin Lake were closed to the public. The first case during this epidemic in Walsenburg was George Aibner Jr., 14. The first death was that of James Elder Gilbert, 37, in mid-August.
An epidemic was raging across the entire United States. Locally, organizers debated canceling the Huerfano County 4-H Fair, but carried on anyway. The next week the Colorado Emergency Polio Committee ordered a ban on youth under 18 years being admitted to any public gathering. City council obeyed and further banned children from the theaters. By the end of the month, there were six cases in the city. The opening of schools was postponed. Even the Gardner Chuckwagon was postponed. School in Walsenburg finally opened Sept. 23.
By August 30, 1946, those under 18 were banned from playgrounds, swimming pools, parks, Sunday schools, picnics, ball games, dances, theatres and fairs.
City council took drastic action to combat the virus by spraying the entire city with DDT in 1948.
Then came 1952, when in the first week of August 26 cases of polio were found in Colorado. The Red Cross benefit auction held annually for a decade or so in La Veta was redirected to raise funds for the March of Dimes. Precautions about public gatherings were resurrected. Although more than 200 Coloradoans were infected with polio during the year, Huerfano County reported no cases.
Enter Jonas Salk, the savior of the young. By the summer of 1955, Salk’s polio vaccine was available for more than 450 Huerfano children between the ages of five and 14. Students were lined up by class that April to receive their shots. Even so, 223 people died of the disease in Colorado during 1955. In 1956, there were 129.
One of the 1956 victims was Ted Zurich, a 1944 graduate of Gardner High School. He refused to let the disease defeat him and went on to graduate from Colorado State University with high honors.
In 1962, there was a “Stop Polio Sunday” in Walsenburg when the Sabin oral vaccine, the little one in a sugar cube, was available for 50 cents. In three clinics in the city, 2,329 people took the first of three doses. In La Veta, Rotary Club sponsored and paid for the vaccinations. This was a special mission of Rotary International, along with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, to provide free or inexpensive polio vaccination clinics.
Vaccinations were given annually through the mid-1960s to all school children, and eventually, polio all but disappeared from the United States. At the time, however, August was viewed with trepidation by parents as the most dangerous month for their children.