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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 8086

Ms KING (7:25 PM) —I move this motion on polio survivors to bring to the attention of the House the continuing impact that polio has on our community. Many would believe that we have managed to consign polio to the annals of medical history. Through mass immunisation we have managed to almost eradicate polio throughout the world, although there are still cases diagnosed in developing countries as immunisation coverage has been somewhat slower there. Most of us will have seen some of the awful images of children and young teenagers struck down by this disease—again, seeing these as images that are part of our historical past.

During the early to middle 20th century poliomyelitis impacted the lives of thousands of Australians. It is a very old disease where, conversely, as our hygiene standards improved, the immunisation protection passed on by mothers to their infants lessened. It is difficult to put an exact figure on the number affected as many cases did not require hospitalisation and were therefore never recorded, but many resources put the number at over 70,000.

This disease crippled not only individuals but communities in which they lived. This horrific disease terrified Australian communities as it was not known how it was transmitted, with the disease not being brought under control until the late 1950s. It struck down children—over 50 per cent of cases were children under three—and teenagers across the country and, if you look at the Polio Victoria website, there is a roll of Victorian polio survivors. It is heartbreaking to see the ages of those, from six months old to one-year-olds, to seven-year-olds, to those in their teenage years and their early 20s.

For those children and young people who survived, they recovered from polio without any, or only mild, disabilities. They thought they had left polio behind them when they exited from the hospital and treatment facilities. They were all keen to get on with their interrupted lives. They finished school, they worked. Many married and had children and grandchildren. They participated in sport, helped out at school fetes, were active in public life, and contributed alongside other members from their generations to Australia’s growth.

But, as this generation has aged, for some of them the effects of that dreadful childhood illness have come back, and I refer to post-polio syndrome, a not widely known syndrome but one that, nevertheless, has come to have a significant impact on the lives of those thousands of polio survivors. We now see new symptoms striking them, with effects such as fatigue, increased pain in muscles and joints, declining strength and endurance, an inability to stay alert, weakness and muscle atrophy, muscle spasms and twitching, respiratory and sleep problems, swallowing and speaking difficulties, and depression and anxiety. It is critical that those suffering from post-polio syndrome receive early assessment and intervention.

Unfortunately, not only do many members of the community lack a sound understanding of post-polio syndrome, but many health professionals are also unaware of the condition. Survivors of post-polio syndrome report that many of them have had difficulty in getting a diagnosis, often having been subjected to many years of testing and at times wrong diagnosis, let alone then trying to get access to support services.

The advent of state based and local polio support groups is assisting, but there is clearly a need for a greater role for national bodies such as Polio Australia to provide advice to the federal government and health professionals for the development of policy and education programs to improve the lives of those impacted by the late effects of polio. Polio survivors continue to be the single largest disability group in Australia today, numbering in the tens of thousands. This disease still haunts those sufferers decades later. Many of us in parliament are aware that former member and former Labor leader Kim Beazley was a polio survivor.

On a personal note, my mum, whose 80th birthday we celebrated on the weekend, contracted polio in 1946 and spent her 17th birthday in Fairfield hospital. She emerged after a year fully recovered, but on developing muscle weakness and a limp in her 50s was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome. I know that it has affected her significantly as she has aged—not something that we as a family have always understood. I think that particularly those like my mum, who experienced such a debilitating illness in their early lives, have been determined to stay well and they certainly have a lot of pride about their being physically strong and capable. Acknowledging and coming to terms with having post-polio syndrome has been really hard for many of them. I encourage those who have members of their families who have had polio to inform themselves about the syndrome and, whilst not all survivors will be affected, I cannot stress enough the importance of an early assessment and access to appropriate services.

I thank those members who are supporting this motion this evening. I know that it does mean a lot to polio survivors to have what is happening to them recognised by this House. I certainly commend Polio Australia and the state based organisations and the local support groups such as the Ballarat Polio Support Group in my own electorates for the work that they are doing to support post-polio syndrome survivors.