Port Elizabeth of Yore: Eradicating the scourge of Polio

Prior to the invention of vaccines, swaths of prior generations of children were struck down by numerous maladies with poliomyelitis being one. One forgets how disabling polio was. Usually contracted as a child, one of the most visble manifestations arose when one’s leg was “shrivelled” preventing one from walking normally. Various forms of aids were constructed to mitigate the effects, but none was a panacea. Imagine when a child was placed in an iron lung to facilitate breathing. My father was struck down as a youth in the 1920s by polio but fortunately it was a mild strain. Nevertheless, his one leg was shorter and the one foot smaller than the other.

To prevent his children from contracting this debilitating disease, in an experiment reminiscent of Edward Jenner and the small-pox vaccine, one local doctor tested the polio vaccine on his own children as guinea pigs.

Man picture: Deformed limbs of children afflicted with polio

Facility for treatment

In lune 1938 an Orthopaedic Dept was opened at the Hospital under Dr Edward Colley and in April 1940 an E.P. branch of the National Council for the Care of Cripples was convened by NCW. As the Hospital was not equipped to handle long-term patients, they were compelled to send them home too soon.

Long term treatment

In August 1942, Mrs F.H. Holland raised the question of an Orthopaedic After-Care Home Society due to the fact that patients afflicted with EB of the bone, war injuries, and also polio, created patients needing long convalescence. The Council provided land in Conyngham Road, while the Nuffield Trust gave a grant for the building and E.H. Walton and Co gave £4000 to the Care for Cripples Fund on the occasion of the centenary of the Herald.

On 15 March 1947 Lady Walton, wife of the Chairman of EH Waltons (Pty) Ltd, the owners of the E.P. Herald laid the foundation stone of the new Walton Orthopaedic Home, designed by Siemerink and Brinkman, and it was opened on 11 November 1948 by Mrs Holland as President of the National Council of Child Welfare Societies.

Above: When poliomyelitis attacked the lungs, the young children were placed in these so-called “iron lungs” which assisted with their breathing.

Selection of guinea pigs

Even though society had been clamoring for a vaccine to prevent children from contracting the virus poliomyelitis, or “infantile paralysis,” for generations, fears were nevertheless raised about the possible negative effects of the vaccine developed by Dr. Salk. The production of a defective batch of vaccine did not assist in allaying the public’s concerns.

The number of people who were stricken made everyone aware of the scourge. The Medical Officer of Health for Port Elizabeth, Dr. D.L. Ferguson, was naturally keen to obtain the vaccine in order to vaccinate the children of Port Elizabeth as widely as possible and as a soon as possible.

So that he could gain ready public acceptance of vaccination, Dr. Ferguson approached his own daughter and son-in-law to seek their co-operation in allowing themselves and their two sons, his grandchildren, to be vaccinated. He was so confident of its safety that he had no qualms in persuading them, but it was, nonetheless, for them a decision not lightly taken. After much serious thought, they agreed and were vaccinated without, of course, any ill-effects. Based upon this test, Dr. Ferguson could easily persuade people of the wisdom of his plans for mass vaccination by telling them that he had “risked” vaccinating his own grandchildren.

Later years

By 1988 there was no longer a need for the Home, and it was closed and turned into offices.

The later oral vaccine was, of course, much easier to administer and has been very widely used so that today the disease has been eradicated. Unfortunately the world has witnessed the resurgence of diseases such as small-pox due to actions of the anti-vax mobs.


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