Spectrum 794. The polio epidemics

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In 1916 over 1,000 cases of poliomyelitis were reported in New Zealand resulting in 123 deaths. Over the next five decades fear of polio took hold with a series of epidemics, it was the last of the childhood epidemics.

The programme opens with the nursery rhyme, ‘A ring a ring of roses’ referencing the infamous epidemic from the middle ages, the Black Plague. The hallmark of a polio survivor was partial paralysis and a life time of crippling. In earlier epidemics the disease was called Infantile Paralysis because it was believed to travel at two and a half feet above the ground; people taller than that didn’t get it while others of that height or lower, were susceptible. None of the quarantine or increased hygiene and nutrition measures made an impact.

Now however is understood to be a virus contracted through faeces, affecting the gastro-intestinal system, resulting in paralysis for some and muscle contraction and deformity for others. New Zealand’s major epidemics occurred during 1916, 1924, 1936, from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, with the last break out in 1956.

Polio victim, Dennis Hogan describes the public fright caused by the closing of cinemas, swimming pools, the non-start of schools and the general prohibition on people congregating. Children were sent out into the country where possible and the radio broadcast special programmes for children unable to get to school.

Dorothy Ford grew up in the village of Karapiro in the mid-1940s and explains everyone was ignorant of what polio was; hats were worn for example, to prevent the sun acting on the spine. In 1936, ten-year old Dennis Hogan of Christchurch returned home feeling poorly with a pain in his leg, on rising the next day he collapsed in the toilet and the doctor then diagnosed and sent him to hospital.

Dorothy Ford says her six-year old daughter Alison complained of being sick with a fever, headache, vomiting and sore back. Panic stricken she called for the doctor who diagnosed and sent her to hospital in an ambulance. Dorothy was unable to accompany Alison because of two other young children at home and unable to follow her progress as she and the children were quarantined in their home for one month. A mark was put on their gate to warn people off, she says “people “avoided each other like the plague”, even groceries were ordered from the ‘safety’ of the front porch and delivered over the fence.

The 1947-8 epidemic was one of the worst; schools closed, children were prevented from staying in motor camps and inter island travel was prohibited. The Minister of Education, Mr McCombs broadcast a message to the nation announcing the delayed start of the school year, moving it from February to Easter.

Interview with two unidentified men whose wives contracted the virus in Christchurch in 1954-55. Wife Pam, contracted it six weeks after giving birth ( low immune system) leaving the husband at Lake Ōhau where he was quarantined for two weeks with their two young children by the Health Authorities. Following this the children stayed with extended family until his wife was able to return home. He says during this time he nearly became an alcoholic. The second wife Mary, was away in the hospital for six and half months and would only return once she could walk accompanied by crutches.

Treatment of the paralysis presented its own problems and fears. In June Opie’s book ‘Over My Dead Body’ she describes the iron lung which was used widely during the epidemics of the 1940s and '50s. The iron lung caused problems in the hospitals due to regular power shortages in New Zealand at this time. Nurse Betty [Gell] describes the difficulties they experienced during the 1947 epidemic when power failures happened three to four times day. The nurses would run to those patients dependant on the iron lung to hand work the bellows.

Dennis Hogan describes how he was strapped and buckled into a complete body frame built to immobilise his limbs for the first six days in hospital and how he was also kept in isolation with no family contact. Medical thought at this time supported resting the muscles was best practice to prevent limb deterioration.

Physiotherapist Bill [Bell] describes his cousin, Bush nurse Sister Kenny and her innovative treatment of polio which challenged this thinking. A disciple of her methods, he worked the Kenny Method in Australia and the USA before basing himself at the Duncan Hospital, Whanganui for twenty years. They would use hot packs, sterilised in boiling water, spun dry and wrapped around the patient’s limbs. After 15-20 minutes the packs were unwrapped and joints and limbs then gently stretched within normal patterns of movement.

Bill explains how he regularly lectured about the Kenny Method as a means to alleviate public fear. He shares a couple of stories about children’s attitudes to pain and death. Long term sufferers stayed in the ward which often doubled as a classroom and where they learned to cope with limited movement. In 1935 the Crippled Children Society was formed in response to the lack of support and facilities with the influx of disabilities.

In 1920 Ivan Wadley contracted polio as a three-year old and acknowledges how attitudes towards disability have changed today. He explains how his sisters would drag him to school on a go-kart in lieu of a wheel chair whilst kids at school would pull him around. He was always very aware that he was seen as a bit of an oddity.

The Salk vaccine for polio was released in New Zealand in 1936. Dorothy Ford tells of how keen she was to get her other two children vaccinated following the trauma she experienced with her daughter Alison. By 1959 all children in New Zealand between the ages of two and sixteen had been covered.

Bill Bell is heard in his physiotherapy clinic treating a woman named Pat, for on-going pain from polio. He first treated her when she was a four year old polio patient, 40 years ago. they discuss the need for on-going vaccination to prevent a reoccurrence of a polio epidemic.

Credits: Jerome Cvitanovich expresses thanks to Dennis Hogan of the Post-Polio Support Society, Rose Hudson of the Correspondence School and Jean Ross for use of her History thesis on poliomyelitis.

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Year 1993

Reference number 15046

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection

Credits Cvitanovich, Jerome, Interviewer

Duration 00:32:30

Date 12 Jul 1993