Polio – an ever-present risk


An iron lung, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London: a patient inside a Drinker respirator, attended to by a nurse and a doctor. Photograph, ca. 1930. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Polio is my counter-cyclical topic to kick of a new year that everyone hopes will see the Covid-19 global pandemic kicked in the arse. That’s Australian lingo for vanquished, eradicated, snuffed out. Despite hopes that the Covid-19 respiratory virus will be globally defeated through a programme of vaccinations, it is unlikely to cover everyone who needs it, this year or even next. So let’s be informed by history.

My generation will recall the arrival of the polio immunisation team at their local primary school in the 1950s. ‘The Jab’ was administered to all children as part of a mandatory scheme to eradicate poliomyelitis (polio) from New Zealand (where I grew up). NZ, like Australia, had virus outbreaks in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Polio is a viral disease that affects the spinal cord and nervous system, primarily in children and adolescents. Globally, the disease has been 99% eradicated, after an immunisation programme started in 1955. Yet, as health authorities warn, even though the disease has not been seen in the US since 1988, it would take just one live case to be imported to re-start the viral cycle.

I warmed to this as a FOMM topic after reading a few chapters of Alan Alda’s charming biography ‘Never have your dog stuffed’. Alda, who contracted polio as a child in the 1940s recalled, “The country was in the throes of an epidemic. People were afraid to go to public swimming pools or theatres for fear of contagion.”

His parents utilised a controversial treatment advocated by Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenny. The treatment involved application of heat packs and manual stretching of limbs. Though controversial at the time, the Kenny methods were absorbed into what we now know as rehabilitation medicine.

Despite Alda’s graphic description of the painful application of heat packs, he credits the Kenny treatment with not developing paralysis or the characteristic withered leg common in polio victims.

Even though his doctor had declared him no longer contagious, young Alda had few visitors. He related how one child came to visit for a short while, sitting across the room on a wooden chair.

“Over the next couple of weeks, I thought about this, how kind he was to visit me. I also noticed he didn’t come back.”

Serious polio cases were often subjected to lengthy periods in an ‘iron lung’. An iron lung was a bed inside a metal box with a cushioned opening where the patient’s head protruded. The machine helped patients breathe mechanically until such time as the virus subsided and they could breathe on their own.

Survivors who were left with a withered leg were fitted with a caliper to help them walk. Serious cases ended up in a wheelchair.

It is estimated that about 30% of those affected by paralytic polio could be vulnerable to Post-Polio Syndrome in later life. Occurring about 30 years after the initial infection, PPS causes progressively worsening muscle weakness in limbs affected by the disease.

To demonstrate that polio (like Covid-19) can affect anyone, many famous people were affected by the disease:

Actor and humorist Michael Flanders (of the duo Flanders and Swan) spent much of his life in a wheelchair after contracting polio in 1942. As you can tell by this splendid parody of Mozart’s horn concerto, Flanders did not let polio dominate his life, short as it was (he died in 1975 aged 53). Given the dire nature of this topic, I recommend this performance of “Ill Wind” as light relief.  

My favourite songwriter, Joni Mitchell, developed polio and spent much of her childhood at home, where she discovered a talent for art and music. Joni developed her distinctive range of open tunings on guitar and dulcimer to compensate for an arm weakened by the disease. Polio might also explain her friendship with another Canadian songwriter, Neil Young, also a victim.

Australian songwriter Joy Mckean has worn a caliper since developing polio in childhood. In the documentary Slim and I, she tells the story of how she came to write Lights on the Hill, one of her husband Slim Dusty’s enduring songs. As Joy tells it, in the days when she and Slim criss-crossed the continent, the dip switch of most cars was located on the floor, to the left of the brake pedal. As her left leg was paralyzed, Joy had developed a method of moving her right leg across to dip the lights and back to the accelerator. It puts lines like these sharply into context:

These rough old hands are a-glued to the wheel
My eyes full of sand from the way they feel
And the lights comin’ over the hill are a-blindin’ me

Many other well-known Australians were struck down with polio as children, including the late media tycoon Kerry Packer, radio presenter John Laws and former Deputy PM Kim Beazley.

Packer was at boarding school in 1945, aged six, when, as he recalls, “one morning I got out of bed and just fell flat on my face.

I had polio and rheumatic fever and was sent straight down to Sydney. They put me in hospital there for about nine months in an iron lung.”

Although there has not been a locally acquired case in Australia since 1972, the country has a polio response plan in place. The ever-present risk of the disease being imported could trigger the plan. Although wild poliovirus-associated paralytic poliomyelitis has not been reported in Australia since 1977, an imported case was reported in a man who had traveled from Pakistan to Australia in 2007.

British new wave rocker Ian Drury was a polio survivor. The disease left him with a withered leg and arm and other disabilities. That did not stop him forming a band (The Blockheads) and penning pithy songs like Sex’n Drugs’n Rock’n Roll, Hit me with Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons to be Cheerful.

Drury, a disabled man with a poor opinion of the International Year of Disabled Persons, wrote Spasticus Autisticus in 1981. The  lyrics are directed at the campaign, which he saw as patronising and counter-productive.

So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin
    And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in
    So long have I been languished on the shelf
    I must give all proceedings to myself.”

This could be loosely adapted to a post-Covid scenario; someone lamenting how Covid has left them with weird after effects, or how the world’s way of dealing with the pandemic has dealt them a bitter economic blow.

It’s not hard to imagine Australian health authorities developing a long-term Covid response plan, as they did with polio.

As we know, all it takes is one case, imported from somewhere else, and the contagion starts all over again.

Happy New Year, then!

Lyric extracts from www.lyrics.com

Note from the Editor- don’t blame me – I said:  “Why don’t you write something fluffy for the start of the year?”




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