Saturday 25 October 2014

Deadly polio nightmare of 50 years ago

Published 28/05/2006 | 00:11

JEROME REILLY AS Sean Og O hAilpin leads the Cork hurlers to open their defence of the McCarthy Cup against Clare today, many older fans in Thurles will remember a time when supporters from the rebel county were treated like pariahs.

It happened 50 years ago this summer, when Cork was in the grip of a terrible polio epidemic that, half a century later, is still causing health problems for its victims.

As Cork made it to both the All-Ireland hurling and football finals in 1956, Dublin people were aghast at the prospect of "infected" and "unclean" Corkonians travelling up to Croke Park. The Minister for Health was urged to "prevent the entry of Cork people into Dublin en masse".

"Let Cork's own town keep their polio and not infect our clean city," one correspondent urged the Minister for Health.

"Wake up and do something before the polio of Corkonians is laid upon us," the correspondent added.

In an era when polio was a mysterious killer with no known cure, the outbreak caused near hysteria. The epidemic has left a legacy to this day. Many of those who survived the 1956 outbreak are still battling with debilitating Post Polio Syndrome.

Many Cork victims of childhood polio have developed unexpected health problems later in life, such as joint and muscle pain, renewed muscle weakness and fatigue.

New research on the 1956 polio outbreak which cost 20 lives and affected 500 people, mostly children, is published in the current issue of History Ireland.

The first case was reported on June 13, 1956, but by the end of the month there were five cases and the medical authorities led by medical officer of health JC Saunders concluded that an epidemic was imminent.

The first death occurred on July 15 when a five-year-old girl passed away at St Finbarr's Hospital.

Most of the cases occurred in the south of the city around Ballinlough, Friars Walk, Ballyphenane and Wilton but there were cases throughout the city and county.

So called "iron lungs" were used on patients whose respiratory muscles had been affected. Patients were strapped into the huge metal cyclinders that operated like a pair of bellows to regulate breathing.

Author Laurence Geary says one survivor described the experience as similar to lying in a coffin with one's head sticking out.

Despite efforts to assuage people's fears there was panic and rumour and superstition swept the city.

It is now recognised that poliomyelitis is a faecal-borne disease spread by close human contact but in the Fifties doctors disagreed about how it was spread.

Flies were blamed for spreading the disease while many also though that "parcels from America", the second-hand clothes sent by exiles in the US, were responsible. Pasteurised milk and defective sewage systems were also thought to have aided the disease.

Both the hurling and the football finals were postponed because of the outbreak and Cork went on to lose both finals.

A record 83,096 attended the hurling final against Wexford which proved to be the legendary Christy Ring's last All-Ireland appearance. Ring was chaired off the pitch on the shoulders of Wexford's Bobby Rackard and Nicky O'Donnell.

In the football final on October 7, Frank Stockwell of Galway scored two goals and five points and, aided and abetted by Sean Purcell, the pair virtually destroyed Cork on their own.

Earlier this month survivors of the polio epidemic gathered in Cork for a special prayer service to mark the 50th anniversary. Many of those survivors are still members of the Post Polio Syndrome Support Group.

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