It’s nearly 60 years since the polio epidemic struck fear into the heart of middle Ireland. It’s still not over, says Aileen Lee, for the hundreds of sufferers still affected by the disease
Few diseases frightened parents more in the first half of the 20th century than poliomyelitis. More commonly known as polio, it was also called infantile paralysis, as it predominantly affected children under the age of five. Though most people recovered quickly, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis or died .
Ironically, even though it is thought that polio has been around since ancient times, it didn’t reach epidemic proportions until the early 1900s, and this was in countries with relatively high standards of living.
Advances in hygiene seem to have led to the increase. Previously infants were exposed to polio, through contaminated water, and built up immunity to it. Better sanitary conditions, however, delayed their exposure to the disease, making them more vulnerable to it.
In Ireland’s case, isolated cases were reported before the First World War, but it became more prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s, with major epidemics in the 1940s and 1950s. The last such epidemic took place in Cork in 1956.
Journalist Patrick Cockburn, foreign correspondent with The Independent, contracted Polio in 1956 when he was a young boy living in Youghal.
It was the main subject of his memoir, The Broken Boy. Writing about his experiences in 2010, he says believes he and his brother succumbed to it, because of their lack of immunity.
“Ironically my parents never realised that the very isolation of Brook Lodge, which they counted on to protect their children, put us in greater danger…We had not mixed enough with other children to acquire immunity. If we met a carrier, and with my father travelling backwards and forwards to London this was almost inevitable, we were likely to get the disease.”
Cockburn also writes: “The fear was all the greater because polio did not behave like other diseases. Unlike typhus or cholera, it mainly hit the middle classes rather than the poor. In Cork, most of the victims were in the relatively prosperous southern suburbs and not the terrible slums in the north of the city.”
Building up immunity
Cork woman Marion Thompson, who, like Cockburn, contracted polio in the 1956 epidemic, believes that her lack of immunity was also the reason that she fell victim to it.
She was three years old.
Her mother, fearing that Marion might catch the virus, had been hyper-vigilant about keeping her clean. Yet, it was her brother, who was eight at the time, and out playing in the streets and in and around rubbish, who escaped it.
When Marion later had her daughter, she was adamant that she be allowed out to play in the dirt to build up a natural immunity.
Marion was first sent to St Finbarr’s Hospital, one of three regional centres for treating polio patients in the country.
The others were the Dublin Fever Hospital in Cherry Orchard, Ballyfermot and Galway Regional Hospital.
She was later sent to the Orthopaedic Hospital in Cork city, and spent long periods there between the ages of 4-17 years, undergoing 31 operations on her legs.
A second home
Noel Quinn, also from Cork, was another boy who contracted polio in the 1956 epidemic. He was eight years old, and was in and out of hospital each year following that until the age of 18. At one point, he spent 14 months there.
“I went to school in the hospital. There was a teacher there at the end of the ward, for about 10 to 12 of us, all polio patients. It felt very strange coming back home, the nurses were very good to us. Hospital was a second home to me, as I was 10 years in and out of it, for operations on my leg”.
This experience was typical for a lot of the children — multiple operations and extensive periods of time in hospital.
Visiting hours were restricted and travel expensive and difficult for a lot of parents, often resulting in children missing out on family life, to the extent that they didn’t know their parents or siblings.
The Woman and the Man
Jackie Minnock, from Dublin, was only 13 months old when she contracted the disease in 1958. She was taken to Cherry Orchard Hospital for isolation.
She says: “My parents could not visit but checked on my progress though the evening newspapers where each patient’s condition was listed according to the assigned number they were given.
“After some weeks there, I was moved to Clontarf Hospital for rehabilitation where I stayed until I was nearly four years old. My parents came to visit at weekends and my sisters — I was the youngest of four girls — were brought but could not come in, so they stayed outside and played on the grass and my Mam brought me to the window and they waved up.
“In the summer time, it was part of their Sunday outing. I don’t remember what went on in the hospital as I was too young but my family tell me I ‘made strange’ with everyone when I got back home as I didn’t know them as such. I used to call my Mam and Dad ‘the woman’ and ‘the man’.”
Maureen McGovern, also from Dublin, contracted polio in 1958, when she was seven months old.
She says: “I was transferred to Cherry Orchard Hospital for about a year. I was then transferred to the Orthopedic Hospital in Clontarf which was my home for a further 12 years. I received physiotherapy every day to build up my muscles, then learned how to walk on two calipers and crutches at the age of seven. Once I was able to walk I didn’t require any more treatment.
“My parents could visit once a week for years, then the hospital added an extra day [Wednesdays]. I have seven siblings, four older and three younger. There was a restriction in the hospital that visitors must be over the age of 14 years old. Although my mother would tell me about my sisters and brothers, I didn’t meet them until I was about eight years old when I was allowed home for two weeks in the summer and one week at Christmas.”
In 1955, American scientist Dr Jonas Salk produced a vaccine for Poliomyelitis, but the first trials didn’t take place in Ireland until 1957. Within a few years, however, it was eradicated here.
As a result of the 1956 epidemic, the Cork Poliomyelitis Aftercare Association was established in 1957 to provide rehabilitative services. Now known as Cope Foundation, its activities today encompass the care of children presenting with various types of intellectual disability and/or autism in Cork.
There are over 7,000 polio survivors in Ireland. In some cases, they have been dealt another cruel blow, developing Post-Polio Syndrome some 20 to 40 years after the original infection.
Symptoms include muscle weakness, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, decline in their immobility, and severe intolerance of the cold.
Jackie, Maureen, Marion, and Noel have all developed PPS.
Jackie says: “At the moment I have more aches and pains and fatigue which became more pronounced when I was about 41 — exactly 40 years after the initial onset of polio. Now I use a walking stick, a walking aid when I go shopping, and for sightseeing or longer walking, I use a wheelchair. I also now have orthotics in my shoes to help support my legs as the muscles have weakened over the years.”
Maureen says: “In order for me to maintain a level of independence, I receive 45 hours of personal assistance to do most things on a daily basis. Another symptom of the late effects of polio is my poor tolerance to cold temperatures, which means I must leave on my heating and coal fires for most of the year.”
For Marion and Noel, they can manage some walking around the house, but not much. They rely on wheelchairs to get out.
Marion says without the assistance of the Post-Polio Support Group, which Irish polio survivors first set up 1993, she would be housebound: “I would be lost without their support. They are a fabulous group. I am particularly grateful to Evelyn Wainwright in the Cork group. Whatever supports I need — callipers, shoes, alarms — their attitude is ‘don’t be afraid to ask’. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to get my wheelchair four years ago.”
Cork woman Madeleine Goacher, who contracted polio as a child in North Cork in 1947, and also suffers from PPS, says: “In Europe, on the whole, polio has been erased from people’s memories. It belongs to the past along with plague and other awful things, but not for us, the survivors.”
For more on the group, log onto www.ppsg.ie, or phone: 01 8898920
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