There were many horrors to contend with in 1940s Britain and cruelly it was often children who suffered, despite adults’ overwhelming desire to protect them. For during the latter part of that decade there were annual polio epidemics, striking down thousands of people in Britain – many of them children.
This viral infection, which begins with a fever, affects the nerves in the spine and the base of the brain, which in turn can lead to paralysis in the legs and for some people affects their ability to breathe.
For many this meant treatment in a device called an ‘iron lung’, which works on the basis of air pressure controlled by bellows, helping the patient’s lungs to breathe in and out when their own ability to do so is severely restricted because of the loss of muscle control. Most patients having to use an iron lung would remain in one for several weeks or perhaps months, depending on the severity of their illness. After this time there would be a long period of rehabilitation, with breathing exercises to strengthen the chest muscles.
Some sufferers were spared the iron lung, but as a result of severe muscle weakness in their legs they needed to wear calipers during the day and splints at night. Once the calipers were removed patients still had to go through extensive rehabilitation. Some were left with deformed or weakened limbs that lasted a lifetime.
And so when a vaccination was developed by American scientist, Dr Jonas Salk, in the early 1950s it offered a real opportunity for health services to start to combat polio. After several years of clinical trials the vaccination was rolled out through a UK nationwide programme, beginning in 1956.
This was a virus that might attack anyone – a fact that is clear when you look at just a few of the names of well-known people who were stricken down by it in their early years:
- US President, FD Roosevelt
- Singer/songwriter, Neil Young
- Actor, Donald Sutherland
- Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo
- Hollywood director, Francis Ford Coppola
- Actor, Mia Farrow
For many people experiencing polio as a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the effects were long-lasting. For some those effects were physical, with limps or other mobility issues, or stutters. For others their childhood confinement meant they began to see the world in a different way – perhaps choosing to escape into the world of books, film and art.
But for anyone affected by this dreadful virus at least we can now be grateful with the knowledge that in Britain at least there have been no cases of polio since the 1980s. Sadly, other countries across the world are still struggling…