Pandemic lessons in our past – remembering World Polio Day

Undoubtedly when it comes to public health, the early 2020’s will be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic. The initial outbreaks and the challenges they created, and later the advancements in clinical treatment, combined with a mass vaccination campaign to minimise severe illness and loss of life.

Wind back the clock 70 years, and Australia and many parts of the world were dealing with a polio epidemic.

Barbara Watson, one of Monash Health’s Consumer Advisors, was a 14-year-old schoolgirl when she contracted polio.

“I remember coming home from school with a weak left arm and a sore throat,” she said. “I was in pain and was sent by myself to the doctor who said it was tennis elbow, and offered no treatment.”

“The next morning, I tried to get out of bed and just fell on the floor, my left side paralysed,” she said.

“My condition deteriorated quickly, and I was taken by ambulance to Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, which would become my home for the next 14 months. My left-hand side was completely paralysed, and my right side was also impacted. My treatment saw me strapped into a double Thomas splint, with both arms and legs immobilised.

“It was three weeks before my parents were able to see me, and the physio treatment, the baths, the reflex testing and living on an open-air, all-weather balcony was really hard challenging for a girl my age.

“In time I was able to learn to walk again, and with a range of orthotics and callipers, I could get around. I couldn’t easily sit, so was forced to stand on public transport, or when I went to the pictures.

“Fortunately, there were rapid advancements in the treatment and prevention of polio, most notably through vaccination,” said Ms Watson. “The Salk and Sabine vaccines virtually eliminated polio in Australia.

“I am so pleased to see the COVID-19 vaccination rate on the rise. Vaccination is paramount,” she said, “when it comes to controlling such a contagious virus. I’ve been fully vaccinated and am encouraging anyone who will listen to my story to do the same,” she said.

Barbara has been involved in the development of Monash Health’s Disability Action Plan and says she is proud of how far we have come as a community, in accepting disability.

“My polio left me with a lifelong disability, and people with a disability were treated poorly,” she said. “My mother didn’t cope – she wouldn’t walk down the street with me, and if we were ever out and she saw someone she knew, I was never introduced. I was always ‘the other daughter’.

“People with a disability had to work harder and be better, to get equal treatment or just to be considered, especially in the workforce.

Barbara certainly did work hard, in a law firm until post-polio syndrome forced her retirement at the age of 57, and then in a range of volunteering roles. Barbara was elected to the Casey City Council, and spent 10 years on the Polio Advisory Committee, including five years as its President.

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a paralyzing and potentially fatal disease that still threatens children in some parts of the world. The poliovirus invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in hours. It can strike people of any age but mainly affects children under five.

Polio can be prevented by vaccines, but it is not curable. Unlike most diseases, polio can be eradicated. October 24 is World Polio Day, and Polio Australia is asking people to wear orange and remember polio.

To help raise the “We’re Still Here!” message – that tens of thousands of polio survivors are still here and living with polio’s late effects – they’re lighting as many landmarks as they can in orange during the second week of October, including the Bolte Bridge and AAMI Park.