Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (7) Polio and Diphtheria

Poliomyelitis was a serious infectious disease in the twentieth century. When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was huge fear of polio. The fact that it affected children worst increased the fear. Some people still thought that it was caused by excess sun on the back of the neck, so we were made to wear sunhats that covered the back of the neck when we went outside.

I did not know of any children who got the disease, but two men in the farming district where we lived had a seriously shrivelled arm due to contracting polio when they were young, presumably during the 1937 outbreak.

When I did some digging around I discovered that polio was a much more serious problem than I had realised, and large numbers of deaths resulted. Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a virus. It is an incurable disease whose symptoms can range from none at all (95 per cent of cases) through to paralysis (up to 2 per cent) in limbs or the respiratory system. Unfortunately, the older the patient, the more serious the paralysis.

The worst years in New Zealand were

  • 1916 - 1018 new cases; 123 deaths
  • 1925 - 1159 - - 173
  • 1937 - 816 - - - 39
  • 1948 - 963 - - - 52
  • 1952 - 890 - - - 57
  • 1955 - 703 - - - 29
  • 1956 - 897 - - - 50
I had not realised that 70 children died of polio during my first years at school although I presume they were mostly in the North Island. It is not surprising that parents were fearful.

Quarantine practices were applied. During 1948 and 1949, children were prohibited from staying in motor camps and attending Sunday schools, and inter-island travel by school children was forbidden. Swimming pools in Auckland were closed to children. In Hamilton, a Christmas parade was permitted, provided the children stood at least 6 feet (1.83m) apart.

Suspect patients were isolated and school contacts excluded until the diagnosis was confirmed. All diagnosed cases were isolated, however mild. Peer group contacts and family contacts who were teachers were also quarantined for two weeks from the last exposure to infection.

I do not remember how old I was but I can remember being vaccinated for polio. Evidently, the start of the program vaccination had to be delayed when the first batch of vaccine intended for New Zealand failed tests in Great Britain. The first vaccine arrived in New Zealand in September 1956. 5-9 year-olds were vaccinated first, because they were at school they were easy to organise. Also, this age group had an "indifference to personal hygiene" which made them good spreaders of infection.

Consent cards were sent out to the parents of all primary school children The acceptance rate by parents was over 90% which was an incredibly high rate for any public health measure anywhere. By Spring 1959, all children between two and 16 had been vaccinated. Polio vaccine was later added to the recommended vaccine for diphtheria and whooping cough at three months.

We were also vaccinated against Diphtheria. This was another disease that created real fear. I remember my mother talking about what a nasty illness it was. She was glad to have her family vaccinated against it.

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that infects the throat and nose. While some cases were mild, the bacteria could produce dangerous toxins that caused severe complications which can be life-threatening, including heart trouble, paralysis, and kidney failure.

The worst year for diphtheria was in New Zealand was 1892, when 281 deaths occurred. In 1917, the year before the flu epidemic 240 people died of diphtheria. An outbreak in 1929–30 resulted in 150 deaths. During the second world war, a number of NZ soldiers died of diphtheria while fighting overseas.

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