Struggles go on for childhood polio sufferers in Bendigo, decades after its eradication in Australia

Bendigo's John Spark suffered polio as a child, but the symptoms have returned - a common story for those who survived polio in the 1940s and 50s. Picture: ADAM HOLMES
Bendigo's John Spark suffered polio as a child, but the symptoms have returned - a common story for those who survived polio in the 1940s and 50s. Picture: ADAM HOLMES

POLIO may seen like a virus of the past, but for some its effects are very much in the present.

John Spark was diagnosed with polio in 1949, and spent 14 months in the infectious disease ward at Bendigo hospital.

“You slept on open verandas, and in splints to keep your legs straight,” he said.

“In those days it was felt that they may curve, the bone structure may change or alter or something so you spent your time in that.

“Every day we’d have a salt bath.”

He spent a further six months at Austin hospital before he was allowed back to school, and back to his normal family life in Swan Hill, and later Bendigo.

Mr Spark forged a successful career as a special development teacher in Bendigo, and his childhood polio scare seemed a distant memory – albeit one that left him with limited mobility in his legs.

But more than 60 years later, the symptoms rapidly returned.

“I remember going out to Eaglehawk one day to swim and I jumped in the pool. I couldn’t breathe,” Mr Spark said.

“I was near the edge so I got out, and then lowered myself back in. That’s when I realised something serious was happening.”

Shirley Midgley, Barbara Coupland, Peter Coutts and Heath Coutts at the Polio Day event in Bendigo Town Hall. Picture: Adam Holmes

Shirley Midgley, Barbara Coupland, Peter Coutts and Heath Coutts at the Polio Day event in Bendigo Town Hall. Picture: Adam Holmes

The rapid deterioration of muscle and joint strength is common among former polio sufferers when they enter their 70s.

In the past, the recurrence of polio symptoms took them by surprise.

In 2017, almost all are prepared for the inevitable onset of “post-polio syndrome”. With polio only eradicated in Australia in 1991, there are bound to be more people entering old age after suffering polio as a child.

Bob Conbourne, the convenor of the Bendigo Polio Support Group, suffered polio as a seven-year-old child – but he did not know it at the time.

He recalled being ill with a fever in 1940, and one leg ended up 2.5 centimetres shorter than the other, but it took years before doctors confirmed he had suffered polio.

There were 40,000 confirmed cases in Australia, but Mr Conbourne believes there could be as many as 400,000 – many, like himself, who had no idea they had polio.

“One of the main symptoms was that you got a fever, like a heavy cold or the flu,” he said.

“I had that for about two days. I was bilious, I went home from school and went to bed for a couple of days, then on Monday I was OK and went back to school.

“I was OK, until the right leg didn’t develop as well as the left leg.”

Mr Conbourne avoided the iron lung, the salt baths and leg splints, but he too fully knows the effects of post-polio syndrome.

A range of doctors and mental health specialists spoke during Polio Day Saturday at the Bendigo Town Hall – the first time the event has been held in Bendigo.

The theme “Your mind matters” focused on supporting the mental health of former polio sufferers whose symptoms return later in life, and they find themselves with severely limited mobility.