Care and compassion Health People

Polio lockdown

George Bryant QSM

A lockdown for an epidemic is not new. There were lockdowns of various lengths for a number of viruses during the twentieth century – poliomyelitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, hepatitis, influenza, tuberculosis…

Most of them had far more deaths than the sixteen so far for Covid-19. However, this may be due to better health treatments today and improved sanitation. New Zealand’s worst epidemic was the polio one in 1925 when 173 people died.

I remember the 1948 lockdown for polio. I was only nine years old and the virus broke out at the beginning of our 1947 summer holidays. Schools were closed for eleven weeks (not five) right up to April 19, most of the first term. We managed well, with far little support than what is available now.

We were sent lessons from the Correspondence School in Wellington and had to listen to radio broadcasts. I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies, play sport or be with crowds, including Sunday School. Swimming pools were closed. In effect, we had to isolate.

Adults were not so restricted because I remember my father going to work. Polio was viewed mostly as a children’s disease, and even labelled ‘infantile paralysis’.

Personal hygiene was stressed, especially the washing of hands because the virus could be passed on via faeces, saliva and contamination of milk and food. It was strongly impressed upon us to wear a hat if we went outside. The sun was alleged to influence the spread of the virus.

So, what did we do all the time apart from correspondence lessons? We had to make our own fun. Unlike today there was no television or video games, and no cell phones or computers and internet. My sister and I played cards, Snakes ‘n Ladders and marbles.

I had just started learning the piano so I practised that. In the evenings we played hide-and-seek with the boy next door and the girl over the road. I helped Dad in the garden, read books and listened to the radio.

There didn’t seem to be the panic, fear and complaining which has surrounded Covid-19. In lockdowns today I guess we have more to lose. In fact, we actually enjoyed the time off school.

There were 963 cases in that polio epidemic, with 52 deaths (not 16).

I was also involved in the 1955-56 polio outbreak, which killed one of my friends and 28 others. There were 703 cases.

I was seventeen and a friend and I had spent several weeks during the summer holidays cycling around the South Island. It was hot and tiring and I arrived home exhausted. One night I was restless and couldn’t sleep.

I had a fever, felt nauseous, and was developing other symptoms of polio which I recognised – a heachache, stiffening neck, fatigue, sore throat and burning quadriceps. I was so scared I cried out at midnight to my parents to get the doctor.

He told me I was a lucky guy for I had just passed through the worst of polio flu. I self-isolated for a week or so before returning to school. At various times since then a shadow of some of these symptoms has momentarily returned.

A few of my school mates were not quite so lucky, ending up on crutches or with leg braces. The worst effect of polio was paralysis of the limbs. The ‘iron lung’ was used for hospitalised patients to help them breathe.

A vaccine was discovered in the late 1950s. Sanitation and water supplies have also improved since then and for the last several decades there have been no further cases in New Zealand.

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George Bryant, QSM, JP, MA (Hons)

Author/Publisher and Public speaker


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