Cultural Artefact: Poliomyelitis


Caused by a virus which attacks nerve cells, and the only infectious disease (apart from those sexually transmitted) to increase in the west in the twentieth century, 'polio' (anterior poliomyelitis, acute anterior poliomyelitis, or 'infantile paralysis') first appeared officially in Tasmania in 1909 when 41 cases probably constituted the state's first epidemic. Between 1912 when polio became notifiable, and 1970 when it disappeared from the record, most years yielded cases, with further epidemics in 1929-30 (127 cases), 1934 (32), 1937-38 (1006), 1946 (98), 1949-50 (51), 1950-51 (206), 1952-53 (202), 1955-56 (20) and the last in 1961 (48 cases). The warmer months favoured outbreaks, a pattern described elsewhere but not obvious on the mainland.

Causing serious havoc in ordinary years, polio dominated all other activities in the great 1937-38 epidemic, proportionately the world's second-largest, when 1006 cases were notified, easily as many again were permanently affected but went unreported, and 81 people died. Severe restrictions were imposed on the population to control infection and quell panic, measures abandoned in later epidemics. Extra trained and voluntary staff were recruited, 'iron lungs' breathed for patients with weak chest muscles, and the Tasmanian Society for the Care of Crippled Children led the huge aftercare effort, which centred on St Giles home in the north and Wingfield in the south. Mass immunisation campaigns, firstly with Salk (1956) then Sabin (1964) vaccines eventually checked the disease.

In Tasmania polio boosted professions like social work, and survivors, sometimes through membership of Postpolio Network, have made important gains for the physically impaired.

Anne Killalea

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