21st Nov, 2017

Coventry's polio epidemic and city's unique contribution recalled 60 years on - as fight goes on

A DEVASTATING polio outbreak in Coventry 60 years ago has been recalled at a re-union of those who experienced it – and the unique contribution to the world made by the city.

The event at Coventry Transport Museum on Monday (September 11) was supported by the government’s international development department as the UK seeks to support global efforts to eradicate polio by 2020.

More than 100 people in Coventry were affected by the post-war polio epidemic in 1957 as the city was redeveloped and just as a vaccine was becoming available – the last significant outbreak in the city.

Patients who caught the polio virus could be left paralysed and unable to breathe without the help of an ‘iron lung’, a huge piece of medical machinery which did their breathing for them.

Captain GT Smith-Clarke, the man behind the Alvis Motor Car Company, would come into the wards at Whitley to demonstrate his new invention.

It was an improved design for the iron lung which used engineering techniques from Coventry’s automotive industry. It made it easier for medical staff to treat patients.

Those who worked as nurses, doctors or council staff to treat patients and contain the epidemic were re-united at the event with those living with the long-term effects of the disease.

Margaret Parkinson, a lifelong Coventry resident who began training to be a nurse in 1948, worked on the isolation wards at the Whitley Hospital throughout the 1950s treating patients with polio as well as other infectious diseases such as TB.

She volunteered to try out the iron lung. She says: “Moments of hesitation then I thought, ‘Why not?’ so up went my hand. The lung itself was like a large coffin and very frightening, as I found out, when inside and the lid was shut down.

“Captain Smith-Clarke switched it on and the large separate bellows at the side started. We nursed so many people it proved to be a life saver for some.”

Margaret remembers a little girl – believed to be called Lindsay Heslop – who was almost completely paralysed. She taught herself to write with the toes on one of her feet.

She also remembers John, who, she thinks, must have been around 17 or 18, who was also paralysed from the chest down and in an iron lung.

She said: “It’s good news that there were only 37 cases of polio in the world last year – but there’s still more to do. If we don’t vaccinate every child then there’s always a chance it could come back again.

“I’m sharing my memories story because I believe in this campaign. It’s fantastic that we can be so close to ending polio. But we need one last push to rid the world of it completely.”

Newspaper reports and broadcast footage of the time, public health specialists and medical scientists were already voicing their hopes that the world would be polio-free within a few years.

Yet up until the 1980s, polio was still paralysing children here in the UK and there are more than 120,000 men and women suffering from the after-effects of this devastating disease, the campaign says.

Globally the number of cases is in steep decline: polio is now only endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, and a cheap vaccine is available.

However, more still needs to be done to eradicate the disease completely.

‘One last push to eradicate polio’

Rotary International and the One Last Push Campaign organised the event.

Peter Offer is a member of The Rotary Club of Coventry Jubilee and a former Director of Rotary International, which has been working to rid the world of polio since 1985 with a focus on advocacy, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and awareness building.

Mr Offer says: “The UK has long been a leader in polio eradication and the recent commitment of UK Aid to immunise up to 45 million children against the disease each year until 2020 will save more than 65,000 children from paralysis every year.

“This in turn will help over 15,000 polio workers reach every last child with life-saving vaccines and other health interventions; and help save almost £2 billion globally by 2035, as health care systems are freed up from treating polio victims. Rotary is a partner of The Global Polio Eradication Initiative confirms that a polio-free world is possible in the next few years. We can’t let up now.”

“Many have forgotten what happened here in Coventry in the 1950s – or never knew how polio touched their city. Speaking with local people whose lives have been shaped with the after-effects of childhood polio; it’s painful, debilitating and frustrating.

“Polio is just as cruel now as it was then. The difference is, today we can do more than just prevent it. We can end it. Rotary and The One Last Push campaign is driving awareness to ensure another generation of children never have to suffer from polio and live with the consequences of this preventable disease.”

Members of the public can also show their support by visiting http://uk.onelastpush.org/ and clicking ‘join now’. Or your you can find One Last Push on Facebook at www.facebook.com/onelastpushpolio

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