Our last Polio pandemic was from the mid-1930s to 1956. Anyone here in Quorn born much earlier than 1956 will remember it, probably vividly. The US bacteriologist, Jonas Salk, produced the first-ever vaccine for it in 1955.
Poliomyelitis, was also called Infantile Paralysis because it especially attacked young children.
It could kill you, or paralyse you for life, or leave you permanently crippled. The victim at the left has to use crutches fixed to her arms, and callipers from her waist to her shoes, just so she can at least walk (please note the image has been changed).
In South Australia alone in 1951 there were 1491 cases. Look at this:
2 die from polio here
Two polio deaths have occurred at Northfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in the past two days. They were a girl aged 15 months from Norton Summit, and a man, 22, from Henley Beach… …the average number of cases in the past eight weeks had been 14. In the preceding four months there had been four to six cases a week.
Thirty-three polio patients were in the infectious wards and 38 patients were convalescent. Since the start of the last epidemic only one week had been free of cases, but the number of infectious patients in hospital had never dropped below 15. [Adelaide News, 9-1-1951, p 16]
It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? And this Polio pandemic lasted for more than twenty years.
Summer was the worst time. So some years the SA Government ordered schools to start later after the long Christmas vacation. In 1938 this was 15th March, and in 1948, 24th February. And some schools let students stay home and be taught by correspondence. Isn’t that familiar too?
All kinds of things were tried, desperately:
Ways to Limit the Spread of Polio
Crowding of children in rooms, halls, or other enclosed places is undesirable (crowding in swimming pools is considered especially likely to spread infection). Operations for removal of tonsils and adenoids, or for extraction of teeth should be postponed unless urgently required. General hygienic measures, such as control of flies, boiling milk, washing uncooked fruit, and attention to all aspects of personal cleanliness are desirable. Unnecessary travel and visiting may be the means of spreading infection…. Undue physical strain and fatigue, specially in children and young adults, or in a case of known exposure to infection, may increase the likelihood of infection and of chronic damage. [News, 26-1-1951, p 3]
I recollect with a shudder when the SA Government ordered schools to have all classroom windows wide open—throughout Winter! My school had very large windows, and no heating.
During the 1950 final term, I and another boy in my class came down with Polio. I’d been ill for a week, and finally our family Doctor called on the Sunday morning. The moment he entered my room he exclaimed, ‘Well, aren’t you the lucky one!’ He said I’d had a mild attack of Polio, and so would be fine, and most of all I’d be immune to Polio for the rest of my life.
Yet I broke down many times throughout my life without any Doctors able to explain why. ‘Post-Polio Syndrome’/‘Late Effects of Polio’, wasn’t diagnosed until many decades later.
There is no cure for Post-Polio Syndrome [PPS] at all. PPS is a slow, progressive disease for which there’s no specific treatment. It leads to new muscle weakness and fatigue as you grow older.
Polio Australia estimates there are 400,000 Polio survivors in our country today. This is Australia’s largest physical disability group.
My classmate’s attack was serious. He spent six months in an Iron Lung (an early, massive, clumsy kind of ventilator that breathed for you), and he didn’t get back to school for a year.
Until 1956, SA newspapers and radio were full of news about Polio, and frenetic advice about how to avoid it, though without avail. But what young people have even heard of Polio today?
This article originally appeared in the Quorn Mercury (SA). Images have been changed for copyright reasons, and minor edits have been made for clarity.