Polio survivor: I wish there had been a vaccine

At just 10 months old, Gillian Thomas was too young to remember contracting the polio virus but more than 60 years later she still receives a daily reminder.

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“It doesn’t go away,” she says, “although some people do recover somewhat from the paralysis.”

Gillian’s diagnosis meant years in hospital, isolation and countless treatments. She was three and a half when finally released back to her family.

Gillian Thomas, aged around 18 months, is treated in hospital for polio. (Image: Supplied)

“The doctor said I’d never walk, but that wasn’t good enough for my mother. She went out and found a physiotherapist who worked with me probably until I was about 12, every week giving me exercises, so I learned to walk with two full-length callipers and one crutch on one arm.”

At 12, it was back to hospital – this time in Melbourne, where she underwent a spinal fusion, a procedure where vertebrae are joined together to secure the spine.

“My parents lived in Wollongong [south of Sydney]. I felt quite like a stranger when I returned home at that point, because I was away for more than 12 months.”

Gillian Thomas stands between her older brother and sister, aged around 6. (Image: supplied)

Polio, an incurable disease that attacks the nervous system, can lead to fatigue, pain, paralysis and, in some cases, death.

Cases of the highly infectious disease have decreased globally by over 99 per cent since 1988, according to World Health Organisation records.

Today, the disease remains endemic only in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Australia was declared polio free in 2000, a statistic widely attributed to high rates of immunisation.

At 63, Gillian considers herself a polio survivor, but she’s still plagued by medical issues.

“Polio isn’t a solved problem for Australia’s polio survivors,” she says. “We’re still here.”

Contracting the disease five years before the first vaccine became available, she finds it “frustrating” that childhood vaccination for preventable diseases still remains a debatable issue for a small minority of Australians.

“People who have had polio in Australia didn’t get it because they didn’t take the vaccine. They got it because the vaccine wasn’t there.”

A joint study conducted by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Australia Online Research and SBS published today found older Australians are more supportive of childhood vaccination.

The research found 76 per cent of those aged 45 or older were supportive, compared to 60 per cent of those under 45.

Gillian believes polio has dropped out of community consciousness, particularly among younger parents who may have never seen its effects.

”A lot of them have never even heard of it,” she says.

“They don’t consider the fact that when they were at school and they took the little red drop on their tongue or whatever that that was actually stopping them, saving them getting severely disabled possibly, through polio.”

It’s estimated there are around 4 million Australians living with the aftermath of polio. Polio Australia is encouraging those who have had it to join their survivor register.

A documentary exploring the issue of child vaccination will air on SBS ONE next Sunday. The program acknowldges that while vaccination is a key part of public health some people still have questions and concerns, and it will explore how parents can reach an informed decision.

Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines airs Sunday May 26 at 8:30pm on SBS ONE

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