For many Baby Boomers, polio was a huge fear during their childhood. Vaccines weren’t as readily available back then and many had to watch relatives or friends go through the trauma and pain after contracting the virus.
It’s easy to think of polio as a disease of the past, but more than 400,000 Australians have had polio at some stage of their life. Many are still living with the effects of the disease, including 70-year-old South Australian Brett Howard.
Speaking to Starts at 60 about his experience with the disease, Brett explained that he was diagnosed with polio in the 1950s, when he was about five years old. He hadn’t been well for some time and when his mum took him to the doctor, they confirmed he had the disease.
“I was in quarantine inside our own home and wasn’t allowed outside for a fortnight,” he recalled. “That was pretty hard for a kid. All I wanted to do was be outside and play with my mate from across the road.”
Brett remembered being visited twice a week by a district nurse who helped him with his physiotherapies. His mother and grandmother were also forced to bandage him up every night, something he remembered being “scary”.
“At night, my mother and grandmother would bandage on with a roller bandage a half splint that went up from my thigh to my toes,” he said. “So while I was in bed, I was bound to this cast. That was what had to happen when I went to bed.”
While he recovered, he noticed small limitations in life because his right leg was smaller due to the polio virus. His leg had less muscle mass and he couldn’t run fast, preventing him from participating in sports such as cricket and football. By secondary school he was in a d-grade baseball team, determined to have a go despite his limitations. For the most part, Brett actually had a normal life and described himself as “one of the lucky ones”.
“I haven’t had to be nursed by a family member, except from when I was young,” he said. “A lot of people have been restricted to wheelchairs for life or some even died in the early days. I was able to work for nearly 40 years and contribute to society and had a pretty good life.”
In 2006, just before he turned 58, Brett noticed he wasn’t able to get through the day. He didn’t have any energy and was extremely tired, while his right leg ached and he felt weak. After visiting a GP, he was told he was suffering from the late effects of polio and diagnosed with post-polio.
He was signed off from work completely and has since had to live on pensions and a disability allowance. After his diagnosis, Brett joined Polio SA for cheaper hydrotherapy and support. After being elected to the committee, he was eventually promoted to Chairman of Polio SA. He’s also a member of Polio Australia. Both groups help those living with Polio with a positive attitude.
“I guess most of us post-polios have always been told to get up and get on with it all through our lives, so we’ve had to do that,” he said. “With the members of Polio SA I personally know, we’ve all got a positive attitude on life and get up and do it.”
In addition to his hydrotherapy sessions, Brett’s condition still allows him to complete physical activities to keep him going. He also does Pilates once a week, but as is the case for many with post-polio, he has to limit what he does.
“We’ve got to husband our resources too because we can’t afford to tire ourselves out every day or you get really down and can’t do too much,” he said.
With Polio Awareness Month here for another year, Brett wants those living with the effects of polio to know help is available.
“We are here and available. If you’ve had polio and haven’t contacted us, please at least get your name on the register at Polio Australia, which can be done online at PolioAustralia.org.au,” he said. “We like to know how many of us are still active and alive and what they’re doing.”
Younger generations can be protected against polio with a vaccine that is available. While no longer an epidemic in Australia, polio is still a problem in other countries around the world.