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Celebrating Polio Day 2016

On Saturday October 22, Victorian Polio Survivors will lunch at the Arts Centre in Melbourne to recognise 60 years since the Salk Vaccine became available in our State, stopping the epidemics.

The Arts Centre's Pavilion room is a step up from last year's venue - the Springvale Town Hall which however humble, saw a bumper crowd taking advantage of the proximity to Melbourne's East and Gippsland. We ran a panel discussion on the NDIS and its implications, giving everyone a chance to speak.

This year in more splendid surroundings, we have as guest speaker Sir Gustav Nossal AC, CBE a distinguished Australian research biologist (pictured). He is famous for contributions to the fields of antibody formation and immunological tolerance and has been a strong friend of polio survivors. As Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, he became an expert in the area of immunology, which has meant that particularly through his work with the World Health Organization, Sir Gus has contributed to the battle against infectious diseases in the Third World. Much of this work has aimed to close the gap between the First and Third World in the area of medicine. In 1997, he turned his support to the Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program, Chairing the Strategic Advisory Council until 2003. The Bill and Melinda Gates Children’s Vaccine Program aims to eradicate infectious diseases such as polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, and yellow fever from under-developed countries.

This makes him a hero to me. Bad enough that we had polio but imagine copping it in India, China, Africa or Mexico in a family with few resources, so you end up begging in the street using a skateboard for mobility rather than the $20,000 electric wheelchair to which we have access.

When in 2012 Polio Network Victoria celebrated its 25th anniversary of advocacy and support, we published 'Iron Wills, Victorian Polio Survivors' Stories'. The most significant person we could think of to write the foreword was Sir Gustav Nossal. From memory, he responded promptly to the request. I was moved to tears when his piece arrived – he did us proud.

I am honoured to be introducing Sir Gus next week and look forward to his latest thoughts on the polio dilemma. In the meantime, this is what he wrote in 2012:

Foreword by Sir Gustav Nossal

Professor Emeritus, The University of Melbourne

It is easy to forget what a vicious enemy the polio virus is. I can well remember summers as a schoolboy when my mother would not let me go to the movies or the swimming pool for fear of catching polio. I can also remember a wonderful sense of elation as a medical student when the great Australian virologist, Sir Macfarlane Burnet, just back from America, lectured to us about the new polio vaccine about to be perfected. Through the great work of Dr Val Bazeley of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Australia in 1956 was one of the first countries to have the vaccine available, and the disease was conquered with amazing speed.

Young Australians have little sense of what those summer epidemics were like. But all of us have in our midst those over-fifties, men and women with iron wills, who are the polio survivors. This wonderful short book is their story.

Iron Wills, Victorian Polio Survivors’ Stories, produced by Polio Network Victoria in its 25th year, begins with a useful description of poliomyelitis, its history, its epidemiology, its prevention, its treatment and some of the great personalities involved. Then the book outlines the origins and aims of the Polio Network uniting the various polio support groups and allowing some hundreds of polio survivors to give one another mutual succour. But the main part of the book consists of wonderful stories: the lives and activities, the reflections and the poems, the photos and philosophies of an amazing group of polio survivors. These are stories of courage and resilience, of adaptability and optimism, of patience and achievement. A current of life-affirming strength and will runs through the narrative, amply justifying the book’s title.

We also learn a little about Post-Polio Syndrome, that totally unfair complication hitting 25 to 40% of polio victims many years after the original attack. The syndrome involves new weakening in muscles previously affected, accompanied by fatigue and frequently pain. It is very slowly progressive and hard to treat, though non-fatiguing exercise of the affected muscles can help in some cases. This extra burden adds materially to previous disability.

And now, in late 2012, the enemy at last seems on the brink of capitulation. The polio virus persists in only four countries, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Chad, and total global eradication should be achieved in a year or two. Such is the power of vaccines, but the triumph comes too late for the heroes and heroines of this book. Iron Wills deserves a wide readership, not just because it shows the power of the human spirit, but also because it is a reminder that one should not take microbes for granted. I want every anti-vaccine activist to read it and to think about the implications had the vaccine been discovered earlier. I also want every politician to read it and to ponder what an investment medical research represents. It has been a privilege to review what iron wills can achieve.

For those who can't attend (though it's not too late to book) Sir Gus will be on ABC Radio (774) on Tuesday, October 18 at 2.40pm talking about the import of this year's event. That date too is relevant as the Mornington Peninsula Post Polio Support Group will be celebrating our 20 years of advocacy over lunch in Hastings (all welcome).

To mark our staying power, Martin Dixon MLA, made the following Members Statement in the Victorian Legislative Assembly yesterday:

Members of the Mornington Peninsula Post Polio Support Group meeting MPs David Morris, Martin Dixon (back row) in 2011 to talk about polio issues. Pictured next to Martin is Treasurer Bruce Worme, founding chairman the late Dennis Lloyd. Front row: secretary Fran Henke, current convenor Martin Fisher, Deirdre Lloyd and Audrey Donehue, who sadly died this year at the age of 90.

Below: Polio Day 2012 we launched Iron Wills with the Victorian Governor Alex Chernov, back row centre at the Melbourne Zoo. Pictured are (don't have all names sorry): the late Michael Judson, Gordon McKinnon, Elaine Smythe, Fran, current PRG chair Bev Watson, and Shirley Glance.

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