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World Polio Day: eradication of viral disease tantalisingly close

Gisborne Post Polio Support Group has called it a day.

But that is not as bleak as it sounds as group member Jill Hudson looks ahead to World Polio Day tomorrow

Jill, diagnosed with polio as a 14-month-old child back in 1955, says she is the group's youngest member.

That reflects the fact that most New Zealand polio survivors are aged over 60.

Declining membership can be directly linked to the effectiveness of polio vaccination that stopped transmission of the virus.

Jill knows vaccination can cause concern for some people.

“It makes sense for people to want to know as much as possible about vaccines that are powerful enough to reduce the spread of deadly diseases,” she said.

They need the facts.

“It was the lack of vaccines until the late 1950s that meant thousands of New Zealanders got paralytic polio and had to cope with the consequences for the rest of their lives.”

World Polio Day is a reminder that thanks to an international teams of funders, medical staff and millions of volunteers, the effort to eradicate polio is tantalisingly close to success.

Jill has little memory of her time in Gisborne's former Cook Hospital.

“It was 1955 and there was terrible fear about polio in those days,” she said.

“In the early stages with polio, when patients were very ill, families were not allowed into isolation wards.

“Later, when patients were recovering, there were restrictions on visiting to avoid upsetting young patients when family members had to leave.

“When my family first visited I refused to speak to them, probably because I felt they had abandoned me.”

She does have one particularly strong memory of her hospital experiences.

“Whenever I see someone wringing out a cloth in hot water, I shudder.

“Polio causes muscle spasms and shortened muscles so treatments early last century involved immobilising patients in an attempt to prevent deformities from developing.

“By the 1950s, treatments promoted by Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny, were widely used and involved applying hot towels and massage to the muscles of the affected limbs to keep them moving and to minimise wasting and atrophy.

“Hence my aversion to white towels with red writing,” Jill said.

“People have forgotten about polio now but there used to be a huge stigma attached to it.

“When I was young, I used to limp when I got tired. I remember Mum telling me to walk properly.

“It was important to appear normal and show no sign of polio.”

Jill feels lucky to have survived polio with minimal long-term effects.

“My left leg suffered muscle wasting and is slightly shorter than my right leg, which means I'm a little lop-sided and have some osteoarthritis.

“My feet are different sizes, too, so finding suitable shoes is always a challenge. But when I see other polio survivors, some of whom have major health issues, I feel very grateful that I escaped comparatively unscathed.”

Polio wreaked havoc in New Zealand several times before the 1955-1956 global pandemic struck Jill.

Infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis epidemics, broke out in New Zealand in 1916, 1937, 1948-49, 1952–53 and 1955–56.

During those polio pandemics New Zealand recorded around 10,000 cases and more than 800 deaths.

Survivors often suffered from lifelong partial or complete paralysis of limbs or the entire body.

In the worst cases, the lives of seriously paralysed patients could only be saved by long periods in a compression chamber or “iron lung”.

Polio survivors may develop a range of new symptoms years after they recover from the acute phase of the disease.

The symptoms can include chronic fatigue, muscle and/or joint pain, muscle weakness and deterioration, muscle spasms/twitching, respiratory problems, swallowing and speech difficulties, intolerance to heat and cold.

There is no cure for the late effects of polio but there are treatments and approaches that can ease symptoms.

Gisborne Post Polio Support Group was established in 1991 by polio survivor Monica Sefton.

The aim was to provide information and assistance for local polio survivors with support from Polio NZ, which accesses international research on management of the late effects of polio.

Gisborne members of the former support group will remain in contact with each other.

■ Anyone seeking information on the late effects of polio should contact Jill Hudson on 027-814-1812 or check the website www.polio.org.nz or the Polio NZ Facebook page.

IN THE QUEUE: Schoolboys receiving the polio vaccine in the 1950s. NZ Herald picture
READY TO SUPPORT: Jill Hudson, a member of the now-defunct Gisborne Polo Support Group, says members remain available to help people with concerns about the late effects of polio. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
IN HONOUR: Gisborne's Town Clock is one of several notable public buildings bridges or town clocks around the country lit up in purple to honour the 800 New Zealanders who have died of polio. Sunday is World Polio Day. Herald file picture

  1. Rihari Wilson, Auckland says:

    The present Covid situation brings to mind the previous mass inoculation. I can remember queueing with other shepherds for the vaccinations given by the Te Karaka District Nurse in 1959. There were two, an oral dose and an injection; I believe they were a few weeks apart.