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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 8088

Mr CHESTER (7:30 PM) —In rising to speak on this important motion before the House, I congratulate the member for Ballarat for raising the issue and her personal insights particularly in the context that polio survivors continue to be the largest single disability group in Australia today. Like the previous speaker, I have met with the representatives from Polio Australia and sufferers from within my own electorate and it has given me a better insight into the challenges that many Australians face.

The epidemic of this terrible disease during the last century is certainly well known, but the continuation of suffering by those affected has largely gone unnoticed in our modern society. Indeed, it is fair to say that polio is largely seen as a disease of a previous generation. There is a lack of understanding about the late effects of polio or post-polio syndrome and the impact that the disease is having on all of our communities today.

Within our local communities the effects of the disease continue to haunt many polio survivors and immigrants who contracted the disease before they actually arrived on Australian shores. I do not suggest for a second that our medical professionals have been complacent about their recognition of the disease. I think that we would all agree that there have been several other medical issues that have perhaps attracted more attention in recent years and post-polio syndrome has not been recognised to the extent that it probably needs to be in the future. I believe that perhaps this lack of recognition has taken away the emphasis that the medical system previously had on eradicating polio but also in providing adequate care for people going forward.

It is a case that Polio Australia have made throughout their campaign and their slogan is: ‘Polio forgotten but not gone’. As I said, polio is seen as a disease of a previous generation and there is a concern that many people are actually reluctant to talk about their experience and the effects that the disease has had on them throughout their lives. Unfortunately there remains a certain stigma that surrounds this terrible disease, which we as a society, I believe, have to try to overcome and remove if we are going to provide the assistance required in the future.

I believe that the lack of communication and financial support between the polio support groups and the community has probably contributed to a lack of funding across all levels of government to investigate and resolve many of the effects and the problems associated with post-polio syndrome. Indeed, I am advised by the Parliamentary Secretary for Health that the Department of Health and Ageing does not currently provide any specific funding to support post-polio syndrome. The department’s role under the current health funding arrangements is limited to providing grants to the state and territory governments and they decide their own priorities.

The effects and the problems of post-polio syndrome are continuing to grow as the majority of the polio survivors become older and more reliant on assistance from support groups and carers. Naturally, as our polio sufferers age, their health needs will become more complex. Having met recently with Polio Australia, I understand the need for funding to assist the support groups that work with the sufferers of this disease. I was advised by the group that there are approximately 40,000 people suffering from a paralytic form of the disease and the number of people suffering from the non-paralytic form could be as high as half a million. Importantly, there are forms of the disease that show symptoms similar to other medical ailments, making it even more difficult for the medical profession. This can lead to people with the disease being misdiagnosed or undiagnosed completely and such a failure to diagnose the late effects of polio, or post-polio syndrome, can lead to an inappropriate treatment which, as Polio Australia volunteers informed me, can actually lead to a further exacerbation of the condition and an escalation of the symptoms for those sufferers.

There lies one of the most significant problems for Polio Australia. On a database at the moment they have about 1,500 people, I understand, who are regarded as being affected by the disease and are registered on their database. They need to expand that and get a better handle on the actual numbers of people involved in that, and that is going to require funding. A significant amount of work is being done on the ground by the support groups to meet the growing demand throughout regional communities, but a concern is that throughout all these support groups there is actually only one paid role in Victoria at the moment. This lack of paid support is an issue for us for a range of medical conditions, but certainly in polio it is emerging as a major concern for Polio Australia.

Polio Australia have argued—and I believe quite rightly so—that without the government’s future support they will have a further impact on the volunteers who are required. The burden that is falling upon these volunteers is probably too extreme for them, particularly as many of them are directly affected by the disease themselves. They are right in saying that help is urgently required to help them support sufferers of post-polio syndrome in the future. Too much of the burden is falling on the kind-hearted volunteers in our community.

I believe it is essential that the federal government works with the polio support groups, encourages more volunteers and further assists organisations like Polio Australia in its endeavours. It is important that any services that are provided in the future are made available to people in rural and regional areas, and that we take steps to overcome that tyranny of distance which prevents people from accessing services. I commend the member for Ballarat again for bringing the matter to the House’s attention.