University of Canterbury
Poliomyelitis as an epidemic disease passed through the Western world like some great comet. Recognised only sporadically before 1900, epidemics of polio appeared in Western communities with increasing frequency and intensity in the first half of the twentieth century. Thousands died, many more were paralysed for life. Yet by 1960 the disease was no longer feared and indeed, within a decade, was all but forgotten except by those whose lives had been directly affected. So completely had the effects of this devastating illness passed from the collective memory, that by 1980 parents had to be urged and cajoled into having their infants immunised.
Little known or recognized before the twentieth century, polio has had a brief but spectacular history. It was the subject of a crusade which became “one of the greatest technical and humanistic triumphs of the age.” The story of polio is full of paradoxes. It was believed in the nineteenth century to be a recent manifestation, yet there is evidence of its appearance in antiquity.
Known for many years as ‘infantile paralysis’ it was not confined to infants and was rarely paralytic. When it was paralytic, it caused the greatest morbidity and mortality amongst adults. Unlike the great scourges like typhoid, cholera or tuberculosis, epidemics of polio increased with improved hygiene and nutrition. Polio was for long considered a disease of the nervous system, but the causative agent in fact proved to be the first discovered of a huge group of entero-viruses – viruses affecting the gastro-intestinal system.
Initially thought to be a rare affliction, it finally became apparent that almost all the population had suffered the disease at some time. The resultant effects of paralysis and contraction were the subject of heroic orthopaedic treatment, yet the most successful treatment was that devised by an untrained, unqualified ‘bush nurse’ from Australia.
For many years an epidemic, or a threatened epidemic, could disrupt the day to day functioning of an entire country, yet it was later proved that the public health measures taken were quite ineffective. The fear it generated was partly because it was so capricious. It seemed to be the healthy and the strong who were struck down. As a noted authority wrote in 1940, “An attack of polio may be as inconsequential as measles or more agonising than death.”
New Zealand was as much affected as Australia, the United States or Scandinavia. An official report recalled that “epidemic poliomyelitis was the most terrifying epidemic condition in the country and the professional and public fear was justified as no specific measure of control was known.” This study proposes to trace the history of polio in New Zealand – the course of the epidemics, its treatment, and the community’s response.