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Safety and Wellness

Polio Care History and Expertise at Gillette Children’s

A nurse from the 1920s treats a Gillette patient for polio.

Beginning the the 1920s, Gillette Children's was known for expert care in treating children diagnosed with polio. 

Gillette Children’s is ready with expertise and resources as U.S. health officials warn of a possible resurgence in polio. 

New York State health officials announced in early August 2022 that polio (poliomyelitis) was detected in wastewater samples taken from two counties north of New York City. In addition, an unvaccinated man living in Rockland County New York is the first reported case of polio in the U.S. in nearly 10 years.

Polio is highly contagious and spreads through person-to-person contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), polio was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S. in the early 1950s before polio vaccines were available.

Polio is a virus that can affect the nervous system and cause weakness, and in some cases, paralysis or death.

An historic photo of a child's leg in a brace to treat polio.

Treating polio since the 1920s

Gillette Children’s has a long history of caring for children diagnosed with polio. Burton Aarness was a 19-year-old from Thief River Falls, Minnesota when he was admitted to Gillette in 1922 after he was diagnosed with polio. He stayed at Gillette for seven months and was readmitted in 1928 and stayed six weeks, according to We Hold This Treasure by retired Gillette orthopedic surgeon, Steven Koop, MD.

Gillette orthopedic surgeon, Wallace Cole, MD, worked with Sister Elizabeth Kenny to help spread the word about her somewhat controversial treatment plan for polio patients. Sister Kenny’s treatment methods included heat packs and careful exercise to help rehabilitate patients weakened by the polio virus.

In the 1940s Dr. Cole joined the dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School to help secure funds to allow Sister Kenny to stay in the Twin Cities to help polio patients. This support risked Dr. Cole’s reputation as a leading orthopedic surgeon in the U.S. Sister Kenny and Dr. Cole became foundational supporters in the growing field of rehabilitation medicine.

Many children seeking polio care

According to Dr. Koop’s book, polio dominated what was then called Gillette State Hospital for more than 50 years. Koop writes, “No condition before or since brought as many children in for care.” 

In the 1950s a polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and an oral vaccine made of live “attenuated” polio virus by Dr. Albert Sabin sharply decreased the spread of polio. According to the CDC, since 1979, no cases of polio caused by wild poliovirus have originated in the U.S. However, the wild virus has been brought into the country by travelers with polio. 

A Gillette Children's therapists cares for a child with AFM.

Gillette Children's has a team of experts, including therapists, to care for children diagnosed with AFM. (photo taken before COVID-19 precautions.)

Gillette expertise in treating polio and AFM

A polio-like illness captured headlines in 2018 and 2022 when the CDC reported peak years for cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) an uncommon but serious neurological condition that most affects children. AFM tends to peak in the fall months every other year.

Gillette Children’s treated the majority of AFM cases in Minnesota during the 2018 and 2020 outbreaks.

The patients diagnosed with AFM were cared for by several teams of Gillette providers including the pediatric and rehabilitation medicine team, several pediatric neurologists and many rehabilitation therapists.

The brachial plexus team at Gillette is experienced in helping families with one of the serious complications from AFM--a paralysis of a limb or loss of nerve function.

This type of nerve injury due to AFM is similar to a brachial plexus injury which happens when nerves along the spinal cord and neck become damaged during birth. The brachial plexus is a network of nerves that begins at the spinal cord in the neck and delivers messages from the brain to the shoulder, arm and hand.

The Gillette brachial plexus team has decades of experience treating this injury and includes pediatric orthopedists, neurosurgeons, rehabilitation medicine specialists and neurologists.

According to the CDC as of early August 2022 there have been 11 confirmed cases of AFM diagnosed in the U.S.

Gillette Children’s recommends that all children stay current on their vaccinations—including polio. The multi-disciplinary team of experts at Gillette is ready to work with primary care providers and concerned parents in the event of a larger polio or AFM outbreak.