National campaign launches to find 1957 Belfast Polio outbreak survivors
Rotary and The One Last Push campaign will co-host an event to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Belfast polio outbreak of 1957. Some 297 people contacted the disease in what was to be the biggest epidemic in Northern Ireland, and one of the last, just as a vaccine was beginning to become available.
Rosemary Simpson is President of Rotary Club Belfast which, like all Rotary clubs around the world, has been working to eradicate polio since 1985 with a focus on advocacy, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and awareness building.
She says: “We have already been in contact with several Belfast residents who contracted polio during the 1940s and 50s, when the disease affected so many families in the city and across the Province. We hope the event will bring together those living with the long-term effects of the disease, as well as remembering the heroic efforts of all who were affected or connected with the epidemic. Together we want to strengthen our resolve that, today, no child should ever have to endure polio.”
For Eddie McCrory, a retired civil servant and life-long Belfast resident, contracting polio in July 1957 when he was five years old is his first memory. Initially sent to bed with suspected flu, he was transferred to Belvoir Park Hospital three days later.
Eddie says: “My daddy promised I would only be in the hospital for a night. In fact, I was kept in the isolation ward for a further six weeks – and then transferred to Greenisland Orthopaedic Hospital where I stayed for nearly a year.”
Eddie was to be treated as an out-patient every three months for a further six years at Templemore Avenue Hospital and wore calipers until he was 10.
“At that point, the doctors thought I was going to be fine and grow up to walk relatively well,” he says. “But when I was 13, I had an adolescent growth spurt and it turned out that polio’s lasting impact on me would be a sclerosis – a curvature of the spine.”
In 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 in the UK and there are more than 120,000 men and women suffering from the after-effects of this devastating disease. 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.
Rosemary Simpson 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 which confirms that a polio-free world is possible in the next few years. We can’t let up now.”
She adds: “Many have forgotten what happened here in Belfast in the 1950s – or never knew how polio touched our city. Knowing personally and 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.”
Eddie says: “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 story because I believe in this campaign. It’s brilliant that we can be so close to ending polio. But we need one last push to rid the world of it completely.”
To tell your story – and to register your interest in the event, you can call 0207 544 3602 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also show your support by visiting uk.onelastpush.org/ and clicking ‘join now’. To donate to Rotary and help end polio, visit endpolionow.org.