Standing up for Canberra

Polio Eradication 2012

When I was at primary school, I Can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall was compulsory reading for us all. I remember how I used to go home and talk about it with my mum, and she used to recount the stories of her time at primary school when polio was running rife through Australia. We are talking in the 1940s here. She talked about the fact that when she was at primary school her school was quite often closed because of polio running through the community. To use her words, the picture theatres and the baths were regularly closed because of what was taking place with polio running through the community.

I was talking to her tonight to let her know that I was going to be speaking on this motion—I commend the member for Fremantle for putting this forward—and my mum was joking about the fact that there were only some schools in Melbourne who used to be closed as a result of these epidemics that were running through the community. She joked about the fact that it was always the poor schools, which was where she went. She said, 'Our school was regularly shut down as a result of the epidemic that was running through the Australian and Melbourne communities at that time.' She also spoke about the many schoolmates who did not come back to school as a result of contracting polio, and of hearing stories about the children or their parents having to be in iron lungs as a result of it.

This is only a recent past for Australia, and yet how easily people forget how dreadful this disease is and how debilitating it is? It is really important that we still remember the impact of polio. We still see people who have suffered from polio. I have relatives who have suffered from it; I have cousins-in-law who have suffered from it. They are still suffering as a result of contracting the disease, usually at a very young age, and have lived with it throughout their life. We cannot forget the impact of polio, which is why I rise to support this motion tonight.

The attempts to eradicate polio around the world are ongoing and need continual support. The Labor government is committed to providing $50 million to support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and I proudly support this measure. As I said, it was only a few generations ago that polio was a critical health issue in Australia and throughout the world. During the 1950s, polio epidemics spread through this country and the Northern Hemisphere. I remember when I was growing up seeing images of iron lungs, kids immobilised by polio and children in callipers only a generation or two ago. There was also a degree of panic, particularly when my mother was small child, about polio that we can only imagine today. Back then, parents were rightly overwrought with fear about a disease that left their children paralysed and in need of specialist care. Only 60 years ago, some thought polio was a modern plague such was its spread and impact throughout the world. I recently read a quote from a documentary on polio that said that 'apart from the atomic bomb, America's greatest fear was polio'. Polio has certainly left a major legacy both in Australia and around the world, and I understand that polio survivors form the largest single disability group in the country.

Polio was and remains a very real threat in many countries and, even though it has been eliminated through a very rigorous process of vaccination, it remains a serious issue on which we must be constantly vigilant. Since the 1980s, through the efforts of the global health organisations and NGOs, polio cases have been reduced in the order of 99 per cent—an extraordinary achievement, particularly from where we were in the 1950s. Yet, as we have noted today, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria polio is still an active health problem.

I want to briefly touch on the incredible history of the discovery of the vaccine for polio by Jonas Salk. Before that, the disease had stumped the medical researchers. It took about 120 years to find a vaccine from when the first-ever reported polio case was recorded in 1835. Jonas Salk, who was the American-born son of Russian-Jewish emigres to New York, was the scientist who made one of the most important medical breakthroughs of all time.

The success of polio eradication is recognised in this motion, with the acknowledgement that, in February this year, India was finally removed from the list of countries where it had remained endemic. For India, this historic milestone was reached when no new polio cases were reported for a whole year. The World Health Organization has rightly noted that India faces serious challenges in the future before it can finally declare the country polio free, but I know it will be dogged about it and I support the continued efforts of the government to support the global efforts to eliminate polio.

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