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Sligo woman Paula Lahiff on her struggles since having polio as a child

Almost 70 years since a vaccine for the poliovirus was first discovered many who caught the disease during childhood are still suffering from the after effects. 

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Polio survivor Paula Lahiff from Sligo. Pic: Donal Hackett.

Polio survivor Paula Lahiff from Sligo. Pic: Donal Hackett.

Polio survivor Paula Lahiff from Sligo. Pic: Donal Hackett.

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In recent years the general population has become all too familiar with ins and outs of viral diseases, the Covid19 pandemic forced us to turn our attention to the importance of vaccination programmes and the need to eradicate deadly infections.

However, there is one virus that many may have forgotten about, a virus that once caused epidemics throughout the world, a virus for which there are around 7,000 survivors in Ireland with many still in need of ongoing care. That virus is polio.

Once common throughout Ireland and the entire world, polio is a disease that mainly affects children and young adults, the last major epidemic in this country occurred in 1956 with hundreds of children affected and some left with lifelong disabilities, paralysed, and facing years of rehabilitation and operations.

A vaccine was introduced in Ireland in 1957 with the final case in this country being recorded in 1984. To this day there are many survivors in Ireland dealing with Post-Polio Syndrome which can lead to new muscle weakness.

One such survivor is Paula Lahiff, a Sligo resident who now lives in an adapted house near Lough Gill. Today she is married with four grown up children, but in 1948 in India at just nine months old, she caught the disease.

“My Dad was a doctor in South India, it was not a good place to be at the time because of the political situation and my parents decided to come back to Ireland by ship,” she said.

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“They thought I had symptoms of flu because I had a temperature and I was crying all the time. The story goes that my Dad went to change my nappy and noticed my legs weren’t kicking, and it was then it struck him like a ton of bricks, he knew this child had polio.”

Their ship was docked in Southampton and she was brought to Great Ormond Street Hospital where Paula says her ‘long road to rehabilitation’ began. “I was in and out of hospital throughout my childhood, they had to put me on the iron lung which did your breathing for you, my lungs still aren’t great,” she said.

The symptoms of polio are flu-like and include fever, sore throat, headaches, and muscle pain and people generally experience them for up to three weeks after they are infected. However, in some cases the virus can attack the nerves of the spine and cause paralysis, most commonly in the legs, this can often lead to life-long mobility issues or permanent paralysis.

“The actual poliovirus is not unlike Covid19, that’s why it’s really important to vaccinate children against polio, they do it now in schools as a matter of course,” Paula said.

The virus reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s at which point it would paralyse or kill over half a million people each year worldwide. There have been many famous polio survivors such as US president Franklin D. Roosevelt who had been left wheelchair bound by the condition, or legendary musicians such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

Upon returning to Ireland Paula had to stay in the Central Remedial Clinic in Dublin, even going to school there, with Paula saying she had 21 operations before she turned 21.

Paula says through these interventions she was able to walk again, first without crutches, then without callipers, and at 17 years old she was discharged ‘into the big wide world’ with what was described as ‘a stable level of disability’.

Always positive, she got on with her life and trained as an occupational therapist stating she nearly always worked in mental health because ‘I knew I wouldn’t be able to lift people’. She travelled the world, visiting places like New Zealand and worked in a psychiatric hospital in Paris.

Paula suffers from Post-Polio Syndrome and said throughout the years she has progressed from walking on her own, to using a cane, to having an electric scooter to get around, and now using an electric wheelchair.

“It gives me as much independence as I can get. Unfortunately, the symptoms are not very nice to have to live with, your muscles get weaker, your joints get weaker, and you’ve got great fatigue, there’s difficult swallowing, I could go on,” she said.

“I am finding mobility and getting myself around difficult now, I used to drive, and I can’t drive anymore. When I was a child I’d always find a way to work around it, all kinds of tricks to get yourself around, going to the dances you’d put on the good shoes and then you’d be back in the boots before you got home.”

Paula was a member of Polio Survivors Ireland and in 2007 participated in the book ‘Polio and Us’ which told the personal stories of 29 polio survivors in Ireland. Due to renewed interest around pandemics, epidemics and disease eradication the book is now being republished and Paula describes it as a ‘heart-warming book’ that really showcases the experiences of survivors who she says, ‘should not be forgotten’.

Of course, there are great lessons to be learned from past polio epidemics and the way that vaccine was rolled out at that time. With one of the first successful polio vaccines being developed by Dr Jonas Salk in New York he did not seek any patent on his invention and did not attempt to make a profit, just help children in need. When questioned why he allowed himself to lose out on a financial reward that today is estimated to be up to $7 billion, Dr Salk replied: “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

“The polio vaccine was given all throughout Ireland and I can remember my Dad was a GP in Dundrum and vaccinations were given to children with sugar lumps. There was a queue down the road and around the corner,” Paula joked.

Today Paula says she is supported by a smaller offshoot of Polio Survivors Ireland based in Sligo.

“There are about 14 of us and we meet throughout the year. Everyone has their own story, but a lot of things are the same. Do the callipers fit, where do you go for this grant, should I get a three wheel or four-wheel scooter? Peer support is great and sometimes all you need is someone on the other end of the phone,” she said.

Fran Brennan, CEO of Polio Survivors Ireland, said: “As we’ve seen with Covid 19, epidemics and pandemics are still a reality that can affect our everyday lives. However, the story of the polio epidemic in Ireland is one of hope, as the disease was successfully eradicated here by a vaccine. That said, the legacy of polio and the continuing struggles of polio survivors must not be forgotten and that is why we have reprinted Polio & Us.

“Unfortunately, approximately 40% of polio survivors are now living with the late effects of this disease. Many have had years of rehabilitation to help regain independence, only to find their mobility impacted in later life once again by Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS). This is why we continually work to raise awareness of polio.

“Post-Polio Syndrome causes sleep impairment, fatigue, new muscle weakness, muscle and joint pain, wasting of muscle, a severe intolerance to cold, speech difficulties, difficulty swallowing, and respiratory problems. Many will end up needing mobility supports and risk losing hard fought independence.

“Some survivors may not realise that there is help available to them and that’s why we are here. In addition, many health care professionals have not received adequate training to treat polio survivors. As a result, we work to address this by distributing essential information to GP’s and other healthcare professionals to ensure PPS is understood.”

The annual rates of polio worldwide have declined more than 99.9% since they reached their height in the 1950s, however it is still endemic in places such as Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Last June, sewage samples in London tested positive for the presence of the poliovirus, leading UK health officials to urge people to ensure they had been vaccinated against a virus many thought had been relegated to the history books.

Polio and Us: Personal Stories of Polio Survivors in Ireland is available to purchase from www.polio.ie and all proceeds from the book will go towards services and support for polio survivors.


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