Polio in the past and present

By A.C.

How many of you saw the BBC Drama ‘Call the Midwife’  on Christmas Day?  The central theme, apart from the wedding, was the polio vaccination programme.   Infantile Paralysis as Poliomyelitis used to be called, was a very serious and continuing threat until mass vaccination began after WW2.  After nearly sixty years of the Word Health Organisation eradication programme by vaccination, only very small pockets of Polio still continue in places like Sudan or Pakistan.  They do however; present a threat to the world, because of the movement of refugees fleeing ethnic, religious and tribal war or famine.

My mother had Polio, which she contracted in her Monklands home town in the 1920’s, in one of the regular epidemics.   She was also hospitalised with diphtheria and scarlet fever.   In those rather less enlightened days, when she began school, she was placed in one which rather euphemistically was called a ‘special’ school.   It did not take the authorities very long to realise that Polio affected my mother’s leg muscles , and her handicap was purely physical.  She was quickly moved to her local primary.

As my mum was a very positive and energetic woman, my childhood was amongst many youngsters of my own age who had been paralysed by Polio,  in local outbreaks during the 1950’s.

The humour, mischief and outlook of my disabled friends was no different to that of myself.   I learned how to be a child carer from a very early age.  My mother always wanted a girl, but she got me instead.   So, I was taught how to sew, embroider, knit,  bake, cook, do all my own clothes, and by the age of 19 when I got married, I was already well-house –trained.

My mother told me many years later, that she was  first in the queue to get me the Polio “ jag”, and because of the prevalence of childhood diseases in the  large families in our housing estate, which affected young pregnant women,  and resultant handicaps for the baby,  she was determined that I receive every vaccination available.

I well remember on more than one occasion going to a door for a pal to come out and play, and hearing from the doorstep, the dreadful gasping whoop of the whooping cough. I would be literally shoved down the step and told to tell all the children to stay away till the unfortunate child had recovered.  Chickenpox, measles, mumps, we all seemed to know that at some point an empty seat in the classroom meant that someone was being kept at home. Those children, who stayed in the rural parts of the moors surrounding our wee town, would arrive at school, with bright purple painted faces and hands-  the result of that old remedy Jensen Violet being applied to Impetigo or Ringworm.

Whatever your viewpoint of vaccination, and for many parents it is a difficult decision with so much conflicting information about, I do not see children in leg irons or callipers any more.

Diseases and epidemics do not respect, class, age or national borders.   In these days of air, rail and ferry travel, affording economic migration, we have to be careful, that in making access to health services more difficult, that diseases like TB are or other transmissible disease, will go untreated because medical treatment has to be paid for “up front”.   A situation my grandparents would have faced with my infant mother.

In Scotland we are fortunate to have free at the point of access health care nowadays. I think most people who have had life –changing disease resulting in life –long disability, realise that prevention , vaccination and education are  better than cure.


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