Polio must be eradicated. It's a crippling disease but it can be beaten, as I should know

World View: Bill Gates's campaign against the virus prompts our columnist to recall his own battle with it almost 60 years ago


I always have an emotional jolt when I hear of people administering polio vaccine being murdered in Pakistan or Nigeria. The latest killings were in Kano, in northern Nigeria, earlier this month, when at least nine women health workers were shot dead by gunmen as they prepared to give the oral-drop vaccine to children. The motive is a belief among Islamic extremists that the polio immunisation campaign is a Western plot against Muslims, possibly aimed at making the men infertile.

I have a personal interest in this, as I caught polio in one of the last epidemics in Western Europe, in Cork, in 1956. It affected both my legs and, initially, my back, so, for a time, I was confined to a wheelchair and used crutches until about the age of 10.

I thought about the Cork epidemic again earlier this month when Bill Gates used the annual Dimbleby lecture to speak about his campaign to eradicate polio, now confined to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, by 2018. Standing beside an "iron lung", a terrifying apparatus used to keep alive polio victims who could no longer breathe on their own, he quoted from my account, in a book called The Broken Boy, of the beginning of the Cork epidemic and what had happened to me.

I had not read in recent years the passage cited by Mr Gates, which describes the start of the epidemic in June (polio was called "the summer plague"). Ostensibly to prevent panic, and more practically to avoid commercial damage to Cork businesses, the main local newspaper, The Cork Examiner, played down the outbreak, reported new polio cases below the fold with comforting headlines such as "no occasion for undue alarm" and "outbreak a mild one". Victims were not named and heavy coverage was given to polio epidemics elsewhere in the world. These repeated understatements and the generally evasive tone had the quite contrary impact of persuading people in Cork that the illness was far worse than was being reported. It was widely believed locally that the authorities were secretly moving dead bodies out of the back door of the fever hospital, St Finbarr's, and burying them in the dead of night.

By the time I caught polio at the end of September, The Cork Examiner had stopped reporting the epidemic, under pressure, so my father told me, from its main advertisers, who found that news of the outbreak was deterring customers from visiting Cork and was having a depressing effect on their businesses.

Polio as a disease always had a charge of fear to it which has now, mysteriously and horribly, been transferred to the vaccine being used to eradicate it. It is an old illness – there are pictures of ancient Egyptians with withered limbs – but it has produced epidemics only in modern times. Previously, most people were self-immunised by being affected by the virus at an early age. But the growth of modern cities with sanitation and clean water in the 19th century for the first time left great numbers of people vulnerable, and it is a very easy disease to contract.

The first big epidemics took place in cities such as Melbourne, Copenhagen, New York and Chicago. It created such terror because it primarily affected young children and there seemed no way of remaining safe from it. Everybody was affected by the polio virus, usually without knowing it, though only a small minority suffered long-term physical damage. It was largely a middle-class disease because their living conditions were better, but, in New York, where there was a serious outbreak in 1916, it was blamed on newly arrived Italian immigrants. Townspeople in Long Island and New Jersey patrolled the roads with shotguns to keep out visitors. Cats were suspected of spreading the virus and 72,000 of them were hunted down and killed. Blondes were believed to be more vulnerable than brunettes.

I caught polio because my parents believed that their children would be safe from the illness because we lived deep in the countryside outside the town of Youghal in eastern Cork. In fact, I would have been safer in the slums of the city because it was people living in isolation such as ourselves, who had not been self-immunised, who were most at risk.

I have vivid but episodic memories of being ill. I had woken up in my bedroom in our house, Brook Lodge, with a headache, sore throat, nausea and sweating. The symptoms were not much different from flu, but because there was an epidemic the local doctor recognised them for what they were. He called an ambulance. I remember it was a cream-coloured vehicle that stopped beside the tall dark-green yew trees outside the house. The rear doors of the ambulance were open and two men in white coats carried me into it on a stretcher as my distraught mother waited in tears beside the vehicle.

Searching to say something comforting to cheer me up, my mother said: "The driver will turn on the siren and all the other cars will get out of the way." I must have sensed the panic in my mother's voice and I screamed, "I don't want them to sound the horn! I don't want it!"

I was three weeks in St Finbarr's, where the treatment was good, and several months in an orthopaedic hospital in the city, where care was dreadful. After a time, I refused to eat the disgusting food or speak to anybody, and my parents believed I was dying, though the doctors attributed my decline to the effect of polio rather than mistreatment.

Against the doctors' advice, my parents took me home where I rapidly recovered my spirits. At first, I was in a wheelchair, but, with physiotherapy, I learned to walk again using callipers and crutches. After a few years, my parents felt I was becoming too dependent and sent me to a boarding school in Dublin called St Stephens, which was good for me, and where I threw away my crutches. I have never been able to run and do not drive, but otherwise my physical injuries have had only a limited impact on my life.

An effective vaccine against polio had been discovered by Dr Jonas Salk in the US in 1954. Tested there successfully the following year, it was not being widely used in Europe at the time of the Cork epidemic. Polio is close to being eliminated worldwide but, as Mr Gates pointed out, its elimination must be total or it will rebound because of the ease with which it is transmitted, and soon there will again be tens of thousands of cases in dozens of countries.

In one sense, I was lucky that my parents were well enough off to look after me. When I meet people who, like me, were crippled or partially disabled by polio, I usually find it encouraging because so many have done well in life despite injuries far worse than mine. A farmer from Blarney, near Cork, whose family had adapted all the farm machinery so that he could operate it despite severe disabilities, once said to me that he and I met only the survivors, not the people whose families were too poor to look after them properly.

I thought of his words again when I read about children in northern Nigeria, their legs crippled in a polio epidemic in 2003 because they had not been vaccinated. Unable to stand on their withered limbs, they propel themselves on wooden skateboards, dodging cars and vehicles, as they beg amid the roaring traffic.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam