World Polio Day, 24 October

Three and a half million cases existed in 1988 when the global fight against poliomyelitis began to completely eradicate the virus (Rotary International and WHO). Because polio doesn’t have any cure, prevention through vaccines is absolutely important when we realise that one infected child can put all children at risk.

Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is also a part of the disease whereby, in some cases, polio survivors experience relapse after years of recovery.
There is no diagnosis or treatment for PPS – it works by degrees, weakening the initially affected muscles and the adjacent muscles. It is rarely life-threatening, with no explanations or cure, and females are more prone to a relapse. More than fifty per cent of those who contracted polio as a child will acknowledge they have PPS symptoms to some degree and are advised to watch their diet, exercise in moderation and wear layers of clothing to keep warm.

Reading about the fight to eradicate polio last century drew parallels in my mind with the current world situation and our battle against COVID-19. Will our search for a vaccine end as well? The big difference is that poliomyelitis mostly affected young children and teenagers whereas, with this coronavirus, the elderly seem to be more vulnerable.

There are many reports of young people contracting polio and their battles to recover, some more successfully than others. Alan Marshall (1902-1984) caught polio when he was six years old and walked with crutches afterwards. He had many temporary jobs while waiting for his stories to be accepted. He is an Australian author whose works include many short stories and newspaper articles. His autobiography, “I can jump Puddles” (1955), a story that many of us were obliged to read in English classes in the 50s is well-known. During the last three years of his life he endured increasing weakness, due to PPS.


Other names that you will recognise are:

John Laws -- Radio host, contracted polio twice – as a boy and as a young man. He is now 85, having started his long career at 3BO Bendigo in 1953.

Kerry Packer (1937-2005) – Publishing, media and gaming tycoon who owned the Australian Nine Network. He contracted polio as a child, spent nine months in an iron lung and consequently fell behind at school.

Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) – At age 9, when he contracted polio, the doctor suggested he take up swimming to help battle the disease. He went on to win five Olympic gold medals in that sport during the 1920s.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1911-2005) – He was Australia’s longest serving Premier (Queensland). He contracted polio when he was nine, which left him with a limp for life.

Mia Farrow -- Actress and model, collapsed at her ninth birthday party. She was paralysed down her right side for eight months and spent three days in an iron lung. She married Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn and dated Woody Allen. She developed a sense of compassion as she matured, had four children and adopted ten disabled children from around the world. Much of her time is spent promoting global awareness of polio.

Jack Nicklaus – Professional golfer who won 18 major tournaments. At 13, he started feeling stiff with aching joints. Over a two-week period he lost his coordination and twenty pounds. He recovered without any paralysis. Now, at 80, his joints are sore again, which he thinks may be PPS. Jack is still designing golf courses, while he and his wife raise money for “Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation”.

All of these have ‘similar but different’ stories and some are now experiencing pain and discomfort from PPS. Many have become activists in the field of disability, are supporting foundations or advocating for equality for all people living with a disability. My favourite story of survival and determination comes from America.

Ed Roberts (1939-1995) -- Ed contracted polio at 14. He was paralysed and placed in an iron lung within twenty-four hours. He spent eighteen months in hospitals, but remained paralysed from the neck down, except for two fingers on one hand and several toes. When told he would be a ‘vegetable’ for the rest of his life, Ed “decided to be an artichoke ... a little prickly on the outside, but with a big heart” (Speech 2007). During the day he survived by ‘frog breathing’ – forcing air into his lungs using facial and neck muscles. At night he slept in an iron lung and often rested there during the day. He completed his schooling using telephone communication. Ed was the first severely disabled student to attend the University of California, Berkeley. He fought for Independent Living when the Uni suggested that they couldn’t accommodate his iron lung. He also protested that the buildings were not accessible for wheelchair users. Ed earned his BA in 1964, an MA in 1966 and was a PhD candidate in 1969, which he didn’t complete. He became a disability rights activist throughout the United States and co-founded the World Institute on Disability. He died at 56 from cardiac arrest – the ‘Father of Independent Living’.

Mary Pianta
Disability Contact Coordinator 
Diocese of Sandhurst

Items of Interest

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