'My legs and back became weaker; I found it difficult to sit up'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

In September 1956 I woke up with a high fever, headache and a feeling of nausea in my bedroom in our house outside Youghal in east Cork. A doctor was called and immediately knew from the symptoms that I had caught polio.

In September 1956 I woke up with a high fever, headache and a feeling of nausea in my bedroom in our house outside Youghal in east Cork. A doctor was called and immediately knew from the symptoms that I had caught polio.

The diagnosis was swift because it was the middle of the Cork polio epidemic, one of the last in western Europe. Doctors were on the alert for any signs of the disease. The Salk vaccine had been successfully tested the previous year in the US but was not yet being used in Britain or Ireland.

I was taken in an ambulance from Youghal to St Finbarr's hospital in Cork City where I was kept for three weeks in an isolation ward. I was extremely frightened; I was only six years old and I had never been separated from my parents before.

The effect of catching polio was very much a lottery. It was always easy for the virus to spread unless children had natural immunity through catching it as a baby. Even if you did get it there was only a one in a hundred chance that you would be paralysed.

Doctors in St Finbarr's came and tested my hands, legs and back several times a day. They would ask me to sit up, put their hands against the soles of my feet and ask me to push with my legs and feel the muscles at the back of my neck.

After several days my legs and back became weaker. I found it difficult to sit up. I did not know what was happening to me. The other children - and polio was a disease which overwhelmingly struck at children - were bewildered.

Three months into the epidemic, the streets of Cork were empty. Many children had been sent by their parents to other parts of Ireland. Police had to deliver food to some people who were in danger of starving because they were suspected of having polio and nobody would go near them.

The local papers had stopped reporting the epidemic at the time I became ill. The big shops and other businesses, whose customers were fleeing the city, had threatened to withdraw their advertising if there was any further mention of polio in the press.

The epidemic subsided in the late autumn but there were still victims entering hospital in the early months of 1957.

Patrick Cockburn is writing a memoir of the Cork polio epidemic to be published in June 2005.

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