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Staying on message

WHY was our theme for Polio Day 2016, 60 years of vaccination in Victoria?

Firstly, polio survivors are the vaccine’s best ambassadors. None of us want another child, another person, to experience our childhoods and this later age.

Ramesh Ferris has been a spectacular ambassador for vaccination however. He was back in Australia last week supported by Global Citizen on its One Last Push talking about final eradication. Born in India, Ferris had polio at six months of age, seriously affecting his legs. With no means of rehabilitation his mother placed him for adoption with a Canadian family in the Yukon. In 2002, Ramesh returned to India to meet his biological mother and to visit the orphanage where he lived. He learned of polio survivors who were forced to pad their knees with cut-up pieces of tire and crawl in the dirt with sandals on their hands. Since then, Ramesh has become a global advocate for vaccination, to his cost, I recall he lost a job in Canada over these travels. On Sky News (link below) he acknowledged that support such as he received in the Yukon, will be needed for polio survivors in Asia. In comparative terms, he was right, Australians already have it.

But what about us? We will come to that.

Historically, Victoria was the first state to have Salk’s vaccine. This came about because Melbourne was home to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory. In 1951 Dr Percival (Val) Bazeley – an Orbost boy – investigated polio vaccine production in Australia. In 1952, Jonas Salk developed a potentially safe vaccine. In 1953 Dr Bazeley (awarded an OBE for his work on penicillin) went to the US and joined Salk’s team becoming responsible for bulk experimental vaccine production. In 1954 trials were conducted on 2m children in the US. Once success of those trials were announced, Dr Bazeley returned to CSL and the following year – 1956, 60 years ago, CSL began production. Once Sabin’s oral vaccine became more popular, the Australian Government began importing the Sabin and CSL ceased production of Salk vaccine. The last Australian polio epidemic was 1961-62. Yesterday Sir Gustav Nossal commented to me on the QT that Val was a bit of a lad - had to be as a genius. Sir Gus also commented that Salk and or Sabin should have won the Nobel Prize.

We did our theme proud yesterday with one of the world’s most eminent immunologists in Sir Gus (pictured centre); chair of the Rotary program End Polio Now Don Jago (right); and for us, Canadian polio survivor Bill Jarrard co-founder of Mindwerx International, helping people think, learn and innovate more effectively (left).

Sir Gus, as did Don Jago, mentioned the mind-numbing and heart breaking numbers of children who got polio in 1988 350,000 cases in 125 countries inspiring a massive community campaign. In India on January 21, 2000, 150 million children were vaccinated in one day. During the Afghanistan war initially the Taliban declared vaccination a western plot to sterilize their women, but when they saw its importance, Days of Tranquility or cease-fires, were held to allow teams of vaccinators to work through the villages.

By 1991 polio was gone from the Western hemisphere, by 2000 2888 cases were reported in 20 countries, by 2004 this was reduced to six countries and by 2015 on 74 cases were reported. Sir Gus noted that two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – reported small numbers but Nigeria was still affected by the fatwa and vaccinators were killed as they worked. The total number of cases was just 27 however. From the microbiologist’s purview polio is now a minor public health issue. Modelling shows that savings between 1988-2035 amounted to $40-50 billion, he said.

Not on his notes, but Sir Gus mentioned that the same CSL team came up with a vaccine for RH Negative mothers. The first baby is ok, the second not. Found this very moving. Our family missed out on two crucial vaccines: polio and the RhN. I was ok (until polio) but my sister was born with cerebral palsy. It would have broken mum’s heart that my sister’s condition could have been averted.

"The world is not coping with residual viral and vaccine stocks in laboratories. It is a serious problem”, he said

Sir Gus then raised a very big issue: the world is not coping with residual viral and vaccine stocks in laboratories. “It is a serious problem”, he said.

This issue and its terms were not familiar to me. I asked Sir Gus for his notes to be sure. They are hand written and topics only so I have checked the names and other details from Wikipedia (reason: understandable for non technical people) also the WHO global action plan for laboratory containment of wild polioviruses.

Sir Gus illustrated the problem with the example of two deaths from small pox. Small pox had been eradicated with the last ‘natural case’ in 1977. The patient recovered and poignantly, went on to spend the rest of his life helping eradicate polio, he said.

But in 1978 at a laboratory at the University of Birmingham Medical School, a medical photographer, Janet Parker, aged 40 contracted the disease and died on September 11. She worked in the anatomy department one floor below the microbiology department. Her mother also caught it but survived.

Who was the other death, asked Sir Gus? Tragically, even before Parker died, Professor Henry Bedson, Head of the Microbiology Department, took his life, feeling he had betrayed his colleagues’ trust.

Sir Gus called on the world (and politicians) to take elimination of stocks seriously. One outcome of the smallpox tragedy was that air conditioning units were made separate between laboratories.

Sir Gus’s notes finished “if time, anti-vaccine activists”. In my introduction I noted that State Health Minister Jill Hennessy was an apology, she sent good wishes. Ms Hennessy revealed in the media on Friday that she has been subjected to disgusting personal abuse by anti-vax campaigners over the State Government’s strong vaccination policies introduced this year. We decided to send her a signed card of support (75 signatures) from us all.

This inspired another guest, Frank McGuire, Parliamentary Secretary for Medical Research, MLA for Broadmeadows (formerly a two time Walkley Award winning investigative journalist) to tweet… “Polio survivors define themselves as best ambassadors for vaccination supporting Andrews Govt's "no jab, no play" stand to protect children. ( 27 Likes and 15 Retweets)”. I have avoided Twitter, but found this flow on fascinating.

Inviting a politician to say a few words was fraught with hazard. I knew that and warned Mr McGuire in advance there would be a wind-up signal. He agreed, adding the throat cut sign when he absolutely had to stop.

Earlier over coffee, he and Sir Gus had been in amiable conversation about a state-of-the -art cancer centre with some reference to landing on Mars (pictured right). When Frank got off subject and onto Mars I wound him up to the amusement of the audience. He persisted and in revenge copped the throat-cut plus the suggestion that if there was anyone from Polio Services Victoria at his table, they should start lobbying for more financial support. When last I sought an appointment there was a four month waiting list. The new physio at PSV, Claire Formby, caught up with me later. Claire said they lobbied him hard for more funding for the State Wide Equipment Fund – waiting list times go into double figures for equipment. Before lunch, in an attempt to stay on message (that We Are Still Here) homework was suggested. I asked for consideration of this: “I’ve been having discussion over whether I need a brace for the good leg or not. Braces and sticks add 35% more effort required to get around (according to Dr Steve de Graaff). On Facebook where there are many fonts of wisdom, Dr Richard Bruno replied to my query this way:

“Unfortunately there is no "good leg." You may have 80% of normal strength on a manual muscle test in your "good leg" and have it become weaker and more painful because it's: 1) taking the load for your other leg and 2) your "good leg" has only 60% of the neurons running the muscles that you were born with because the neurons were killed off by the poliovirus! At the Post Polio Institute (New Jersey) we found that the use of a light weight, composite brace to hold your "good" foot up and give you some push-off significantly reduces both weakness and pain and normalizes your gait.” One lady responded on that way out, that she had been through a similar problem and Darren Pereira, orthotist who created the carbon fibre job for my left leg, suggested for her a simple brace that she is yet to collect.

After lunch we returned to vaccination with Don Jago Rotary Club of Camberwell, who brought with him several colleagues. Bev Watson had talked to the Woodend Rotary Club and its members made up a table as well. The connection to Rotary is so important. For years I have done talks to Rotary Clubs about the needs of Australian Polio Survivors with appreciation but no financial support. Clubs are governed by Rotary International’s need to raise a further $35m in order to receive matched funding from the generous Mr Bill Gates. This is a lot of money to make out of sausage sizzles and art shows. Camberwell’s Art Show raised more than $100,000 last year, not all of which went to polio eradication.

Thus Polio Australia and Polio Network Victoria are talking more to Rotary Clubs to start them thinking about what to do when the war is won. We want them to move into support for those with polio – in Australia and overseas, which Mr Jago privately agreed would be the direction.

The last speaker was such a pro! Bill Jarrad, founder of Mindwerx International, with his digital presentation was right on the money with slides including our new logo plus Sir Gus on Clare Bowditch’s program on 774 AB Local Radio last week, linking that to his creative expansion message. It was a lesson in being topical as well as stepping out of our little boxes.

So, we drew the raffle – Bill won the hamper containing my donated novels, which was funny. My retirement had been announced in February but not publicised in Polio Perspectives until last week. I had to keep making jokes about “you thought retiring to be a novelist hadn’t worked, well it did. The proof is in the hamper – buy raffle tickets”.

Polio Day is a huge amount of work for the small valiant committee with the professional support of Georgie Stayches of Fetching Events. We need to start work on Polio Day 2017 but in the meantime I need to retire again. There is a sequel to write – too many people are asking ‘what happens next’.

I want to know that too!

Links to: Ramesh Ferris on Sky News and Sir Gus Nossal on Radio 774.

Pictured top : Bill Jarrad, guest speaker, Polio Day 2016 with a meaningful slide.

above: Triple A personality at the Arts Centre Melbourne Pavillion Room

right under the famous spire.

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