Argentinean Polio Epidemic

by Daniel L. Haulman

Operation Name: Argentinean Polio Epidemic
Location: Republic of Argentina
Date: March 6–17, 1956
Emergency: Polio infected more than 1,600 Argentineans.
Organizations: 1st Air Transport Squadron and 61st Troop Carrier Group
Airlifted: 49 iron lungs, six rocking beds, and six respirators.
Aircraft Used: C–124 (two)

Between January 1 and March 5, the Buenos Aires area of eastern Argentina suffered 848 cases of polio. In early March, 50 new cases were being reported daily. The government of the provisional president, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, appealed for international aid to fight the epidemic. On March 5, the U.S. State Department asked the Air Force to arrange an airlift of emergency breathing equipment to Argentina. President Eisenhower’s International Cooperation Administration authorized $100,000 to secure scarce iron lungs and other mechanical breathing apparatuses with the cooperation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Between March 6 and 8, a 61st Troop Carrier Group C–124 Globemaster from Donaldson AFB at Greenville, South Carolina, picked up 21 iron lungs in Boston and flew them via Trinidad to Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires. By March 15, the polio epidemic had struck 1,676 men, women, and children, and more than 150 died.

Argentina purchased gamma globulin polio medicine from the United States and asked for additional iron lungs. Between March 15 and 17, the 1st Air Transport Wing (Heavy), from Dover AFB, Delaware, flew 11 tons of equipment—including 28 iron lungs (in various adult, child, and infant sizes), six rocking beds, and six respirators—from Boston to Buenos Aires aboard another C–124. Argentine military personnel accompanied the cargo.

Between March 6 and 17, two C–124 Globemaster flights transported 49 iron lungs and other mechanical breathing equipment more than 4,000 miles to relieve some of the polio victims. By the end of the month, President Aramburu announced that the plague had subsided with the aid of a vaccination campaign.

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