Sixty years after the epidemic here, Rotary International and the One Last Push campaign is bringing those affected by the disease together at a special event in Belfast Castle on Tuesday. Heather Scott, Breige Torrans and Christine Connolly tell Lee Henry about their lifelong friendship and why immunisation is vital.
Rotary and the One Last Push campaign is today co-hosting an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Belfast polio outbreak of 1957. Some 297 people contracted the disease in what was the biggest epidemic in Northern Ireland, and one of the last, just as the vaccine was beginning to become available. Rosemary Simpson, is president of Rotary Club Belfast which, like all Rotary clubs, has been working to eradicate polio around the world since 1985.
Up until the Eighties, polio was still paralysing children in the UK and there are more than 120,000 men and women suffering from the after-effects of this devastating disease.
Rosemary says: “Many have forgotten what happened here in Belfast in the Fifties – or never knew how polio touched our city. Polio is just as cruel now as it was then. The difference is, today we can do more than just prevent it. We can end it.”
‘As a child I tried to remain as physically active as possible’
Christine Connolly, (60), lives in Greenisland with her husband Ronnie (63). They have one grown-up son. She contracted polio aged nine months. She says:
I contracted polio in July 1957, when I was nine months old. I had flu-like symptoms and my mother knew there was a polio epidemic and called the doctor, who thought she was an alarmist. But the symptoms got worse over a few days and I was treated in Belfast Children’s Hospital.
In a way, I was lucky as I hadn’t yet learned how to walk and the virus didn’t spread through my body as quickly as it might have done. The disease left me with a ‘dropped’ right foot and I wore a caliper up to my right knee until I was 10-years-old.
At home I was never treated any differently. In those days, everybody started school together on the same day, but my mum and the headmistress decided that I would start the next day for my own welfare. My mum took me in and was talking with the headmistress, I suppose about how I would cope, but they turned around and saw me sliding down the banister and it was then that they realised I would be okay. When I was fitted with a caliper I was told I was very special, that lots of people were given bracelets to wear on their arms but I was so special that I was getting a bracelet to wear on my leg instead. I was pretty proud of it. I didn’t know any better.
I still managed to do things that other children could do. I was as physically active as I could be. I used to do Irish dancing, for example. My two older sisters did Irish dancing and I followed them. It was all thanks to Harold Rankin and the others at the Northern Ireland Polio Fellowship. Harold in particular was very forward thinking.