World Polio Day 2020 – remembering other epidemics

WORLD POLIO DAY 2020 – in living memory of previous epidemics

Today is World Polio Day 2020. Never has it been more important to remember those who survived polio and lived through the epidemics that raged through Ireland in the 40s and 50s. Many polio survivors can remember being kept home from school, or off the street as parents desperately tried to keep their homes polio free.

While adults could contract it, the disease mostly struck children or babies, without warning. One of our members recalls waking to her father shouting ‘there’s something wrong with her leg’ – paralysis could strike leaving a child unable to walk, or in some cases breath.

Iron lungs were coffin-shaped contraptions designed to breath for polio survivors. These became the saviour of so many, but must have been terrifying to small children.

Painful physiotherapy and surgery became the norm for those who went through years of rehabilitation to regain the ability to walk – the chance to have a normal childhood.


Often children were taken away from home to be isolated in hospital, seeing no-one with perhaps one visit a week from whichever parent could be spared from households, where there were other children to see to, or farms or jobs to be held. Lack of public transport often made it impossible for visitors to come and their fellow patients became their polio family.

The camaraderie that was built up still exists today, with the charity Polio Survivors Ireland being for Polio Survivors, By Polio Survivors. They recall vividly the sugar lump vaccine that was too late for them, but which finally drove this relentless and indiscriminate disease from our shores.

In 1955, the vaccine that was developed by Jonas Salk was announced. We celebrate World Polio Day on the day of Salk’s birthday, so that his achievement and that of the many scientists and researchers before him, are not forgotten.

Someday it is hoped we will celebrate a vaccine for Covid-19. The polio vaccine took many years to develop but science has moved forward and there is much to learn from what has gone before.

This World Polio Day remember those who had polio and who still need help today in maintaining their hard won independence, while ageing with dignity.