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Survivors of ’57 Belfast polio outbreak unite at Belfast event

Survivors of the 1957 Belfast polio epidemic today attended a special event at Belfast Castle to remember how the disease devastated families in NI
Belfast are Polio Survivors, (l-r) Margaret O’Hara, Christine Connolly, Eddie McCrory, Heather Scott and Helen Nelson (Image: Phil Smyth)

Survivors of the 1957 Belfast polio epidemic today attended a special event at Belfast Castle to remember how the disease devastated families in Northern Ireland 60 years ago – and pledge their support to end polio now.

Rotary and The One Last Push campaign co-hosted the event to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Belfast outbreak of 1957. Some 297 people contracted the disease in what was to be the biggest epidemic in Northern Ireland, and one of the last, just as a vaccine was becoming 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: “Many have forgotten what happened here in Belfast in the 1950s – or never knew how polio touched our city. Today, through the powerful testimonies of those living with the long-term effects of this cruel disease, we strengthened our resolve that no child should ever have to endure polio.”

Heather Scott was one of more than 20 survivors who attended today’s event, alongside Rotarians from clubs across Belfast.

Heather, 61, caught polio in 11 July 1957 when she was two months old and living in the Shankill Road with her family. She was taken first to the Belfast Children’s Hospital, before being transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital and then the Greenisland Orthopaedic Hospital. All in all, she was in hospital for 14 months.

Heather says: “When I came out [of hospital] I was frightened of grass and frightened of flowers because I don’t know what they were: I’d never been outside. I’d only known the inside of a hospital.

“I wore calipers until I had a leg-lengthening operation at Purdysburn Hospital and doctors put steel rods into my right leg when I was 11. I now walk with the aid of stick and wear specially made shoes.”

She adds: “It’s fantastic that we’re so close to eradicating polio. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy: the idea that my children or grandchildren might have to suffer like this: the hospitals the operations, the pain.”

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 Ireland, and there are more than 120,000 men and women suffering from the after-effects of this devastating disease.

International Development Secretary, Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, who recently reiterated the government’s commitment to work to eradicate polio, praised the polio survivors for sharing their stories and helping to raise awareness. 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.

Penny Mordaunt said: “We’ve made real progress globally in beating back polio and its debilitating effects in the last 60 years, since the 1957 Belfast epidemic. In Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan though, families still live in fear of this vicious disease and being trapped in its crushing cycle of poverty.

“I am proud of the UK’s track record in tackling this issue and of the British survivors who are adding their support to the campaign to end polio. The UK is leading the last global push to end polio around the world for good, but others must step up so we can beat this disease once and for all.”

Heather Scott adds: “Rotary is fundraising 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.

“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.

“Ours is a story that needs to be told – and if telling our story can help one more child be vaccinated, and help end this cruel disease, then we must do it.”

Members of the public can show your support by visiting uk.onelastpush.org and clicking ‘join now’. To donate to Rotary and help end polio, visit endpolio.org.

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