The fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic may feel new to many of us. But it is strangely familiar to those who lived through the polio epidemic of the last century.

Polio – the silent killer

Polio patients in iron lungs.  Picture: Royal Children's Hospital Archives
Polio patients in iron lungs. Picture: Royal Children’s Hospital Archives

In the first half of the 20th century, as smallpox began to disappear, polio (infantile paralysis) was the disease most feared in resource-rich countries.

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It is contracted orally through infected faecal matter, such as on someone’s hands or an object. It invades the central nervous system and can lead to total paralysis in a matter of hours and subsequent atrophy of muscles, ending in contractures (the permanent shortening of a muscle or joint) and permanent deformity.

Child in double Thomas splint with the head positioned with ‘blinkers’. Picture: Royal Children’s Hospital

Hospital wards filled up with paralysed victims bandaged into splints and families built special carts to move their stricken children around.

In most cases, patients used respirators for only a short time, but others remained in an iron lung for many years. At its worst, victims would be left reliant on artificial respiration for the rest of their lives.

Children on the beach at Frankston Orthopaedic Hospital. Picture: Royal Children’s Hospital Archives

Those who survived this highly infectious disease could end up with some form of paralysis, forcing them to use crutches, wheelchairs or to be put into an iron lung, a large tank respirator that would pull air in and out of the lungs, allowing them to breathe.

In the infectious wards in hospitals, the physiotherapists were kept busy stretching and exercising muscles, as well as making plaster splints and abdominal corsets.

People who survive the acute stage with paralysis faced years of rehabilitation. 

It was known in Australia by the late 1800s, but the worst epidemics took place in the 20th century. It became a notifiable disease in Tasmania in 1911 and in all remaining states by 1922. it’s estimated that 20,000-40,000 Australians developed paralytic polio between 1930 and 1988.

Like a horror movie, the poliovirus arrived each summer, striking without warning. No one knew how polio was transmitted or what caused it. There were wild theories that the virus spread from imported bananas or stray cats. There was no known cure or vaccine.

Australians were periodically terrified by recurrent epidemics of polio that could potentially leave its victims paralysed, sometimes permanently.

Houses were fumigated, people quarantined, and entire families ostracised. Desperately worried parents resorted to hanging pungent camphor around their children’s necks in a misguided effort to ward off the virus and some fled to the mountains to escape.

But today it is almost forgotten, except by those whose lives were and remain directly affected.

Polio Australia estimates that Australia has some 400,000 polio survivors. But in recent years adults who suffered minor illnesses or had mild muscle weakness during the earlier epidemics are now also suffering Post-Polio Syndrome with unanticipated muscle weakness and atrophy.

Ultimately, poliomyelitis was conquered in 1955 by a vaccine developed by Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh.

In an interview, Bill Gates explained why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had made eradicating polio worldwide a top priority.

Vaccines, he said, have saved millions of lives. He joined the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary International and others to help finish the job started by the Salk vaccine, eradicating polio in the world. This accomplishment will free up resources that will no longer have to be spent on the disease.

Today, the disease has been eliminated from most of the world, and only three countries worldwide remain polio-endemic (Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan).

From smallpox to polio, vaccine rollouts have always had doubters. But, in the end, they work.

Anti-vaccination movements have existed for as long as vaccination.

Now we are seeing a new round of vaccine hesitancy in some corners of the world as the COVID vaccine is rolled out. But that is nothing new. Anti-vaccination movements have existed for as long as vaccination.

To learn more about the timeline of Polio,


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