Epidemic (1)

June 1, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in 1960s, Australia, Family History, Health, Memoir, Poliomyelitis | 8 Comments
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Epidemic (1)

On the 21st of June, 1961, on the Illawarra coast of New South Wales, the first case of the disease commonly known as infantile paralysis was reported. We now know it generally as poliomyelitis.

Polio raged through the many small communities around Lake Illawarra and farther south for the next six months. By the end of October, fifty cases had been reported, five of which had been fatal. The peak month was September, with twenty-two new cases reported.[1]  From about then, the epidemic began to ease, with fewer cases reported each week.

Those numbers tell a story, but only a tiny part of it. They do not tell of the fear and the worry and the heartbreak that this dreaded disease caused to individuals and families as it swept through the Illawarra and South Coast that winter and spring. They do not tell of the lives torn apart, the futures of young and old forever changed by a tiny unseen virus. Some people avoided going into public places or visiting family and friends. Everyone was afraid they or a loved one would be next.

We were a part of that largely untold story, and three of my family are included in the case statistics. Salk vaccine, administered through injection, had already been available to all children who attended school, and had already been immunised against the disease. I remember walking with the other children from my school down to the Council Chambers to stand in line to be given the needle. Of the five children in our family, four of us had been vaccinated in the school programme.

As the epidemic grew and spread through the community, the vaccine was made available to all by the local Council. Because of the huge demand for inoculations, our local immunisation centre ran out. Because of that and probably other reasons too, Mum, Dad and David, my three-year-old brother, were never vaccinated.

David was too young for school, and often played with four-year-old Jeffrey from two houses away. One day, we heard that Jeffrey’s younger cousin, who lived nearby, was in hospital. It was polio, the diagnosis nobody wanted. We were really sorry that the little cousin, only fifteen months old, had been struck down. David continued to play with Jeffrey as usual. My older brother and sister, aged sixteen and fourteen, were working at that time, while my younger sister and I were at school. I was near the end of my first year at high school.

One Tuesday in early October, David was unwell, so he stayed inside. He was playing with his little boats, kneeling on a stool at the kitchen sink. When he went to get down from the stool, he fell. Mum lifted him up but he couldn’t stand. I think Mum knew right away what was wrong. We were fortunate to have a telephone and she rang the doctor, who said to get David up to his surgery right away.

I don’t know how Mum got him there, whether she pushed him in a stroller the mile or so, or if there was somebody around to take them in a car. The doctor checked David and called an ambulance. He was admitted to the isolation ward of Wollongong Hospital. We couldn’t go to visit him until after the incubation period of two weeks was up. As it turned out, we wouldn’t be able to see him for another four weeks.

© Linda Visman

[1] These figures come from various news reports in the “Illawarra Daily Mercury”, November 1961.

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8 Comments »

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  1. A dreadful scourge …. Well written.

  2. I can’t imagine, now, what it must have been like to face that disease. I know I lived through that time, but my family were not affected and I have no memory of it, except in occasional second- or third-hand accounts. Poor little David – it always seems worse when these random attacks visit children. It is always the worst when the children are close to you: you feel so helpless.

    • All of what you say is so true. It is so good that polio has been reduced to very few areas now. Let us hope that it can be eliminated entirely.

  3. I really hope he was okay, afterward… that sounds absolutely horrifying! I am glad that vaccines exist now… crazy to think what the world would be like today if someone hadn’t been so observant of milk maids. 😦

  4. My cousin had a mild case but that was before the cure was developed. In the 50’s, I remember getting the oral vaccine; was it still unavailable to your family in 1961?

    • We had access to the older Salk vaccine, administered by injection. School children received it free through a government programme. However, adults were mostly not covered. The vaccine was made available to doctors, hospitals and local councils to administer to everyone not already covered.
      The Sabin oral vaccine was not available in Australia until after the 1961 epidemic. My children were all vaccinated with the Sabin in the 1970s.


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