History Note: All’s ‘fair’ when it comes to disease control

The Minnesota State Fair has been canceled six times during its long history, twice due to disabling or deadly illnesses. […]

Children treated for polio

The Minnesota State Fair has been canceled six times during its long history, twice due to disabling or deadly illnesses. The 2020 fair was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 1946 fair was canceled due to a polio outbreak.

The 1945 fair was canceled during the final months of World War II, when fuel rationing was important to the war effort. Part of the fairgrounds was still being used for the war effort.

People had gone two years without strolling the Midway, riding rides or walking through the livestock barns. Minnesotans eagerly looked forward to the 1946 state fair.

News accounts from papers across Minnesota described the upcoming festivities. The Hennepin County superintendent of schools quizzed sixth, seventh and eighth graders at that county’s fair. The winners of the current events quiz would go to the state fair.

4-Hers worked on their projects, sewing clothes and grooming livestock. Midway attractions were described. Those entering canning and food preservation contests read up on entry details. Some pre-fair contests had already taken place.

But In the weeks leading up to the 1946 state fair, theaters, swimming pools and community gathering places across Minnesota closed. County fairs were canceled. Schools announced delays in the start of classes.

The 1940s were a different time. People traveled less, which affected how polio spread as compared to COVID-19. Yet there weren’t the sanitation measures that are routine today.

Lakes, ponds and swimming pools provided relief from summer heat. But they also were prime places for polio to proliferate. Public gatherings also allowed polio to keep moving through the state.

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is caused by the polio virus. The virus spreads from person to person. It can infect the spinal cord, causing varying levels of paralysis. Infection can spread to the brain as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 2 and 10 out of 100 persons infected will die of polio.

Polio rates were rising as the fair neared. In 1946, there would be more than 3000 polio cases in Minnesota and 226 deaths. Many were children and young people.

The state fair’s cancelation was ordered by Dr. QA.J. Chesley, secretary of the Minnesota Department of Health. The fair board estimated it lost more than $100,000 in canceled contracts. But the potential for disease, disability and the loss of life was a much more serious concern.

The cancelation was met with disappointment. The St. Cloud Times took aim at Minneapolis, trying to tie the recent Minneapolis Aquatennial to the disease’s spread. noting that the Aquatennial festival had taken place earlier in the summer. The Times said the epidemic had started in Minneapolis.

The effects of that lost summer and polio epidemics were long-lasting. News reports from years ago showed people encased in iron lungs. The large devices allowed polio patients to breathe. Others wound up using wheelchairs, crutches or braces for mobility.

Many affected by the polio epidemic were children. Children who recovered could develop post-polio syndrome decades later, with renewed muscle pain, weakness or paralysis.

While it’s easy to draw some parallels between the 1946 fair and the pandemic-related cancelation of 2020, it’s important to note some key differences.

Polio was first identified in 1908, although outbreaks occurred in the 19th century.

Future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921. But mass vaccinations weren’t available for polio until 1954.

Contrast that to COVID-19, which was identified in late 2019. Mass vaccines were rolled out in spring 2021. Advances in science have made a big difference in how disease causes disability, and in how we work and play.

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at  www.mnddc.org

  • "Stay safe, Minnesota. Take steps to protect yourself & others from the COVID-19 virus."
  • "Stay safe, Minnesota. Take steps to protect yourself, & others from the COVID-19 virus."

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