Polio (Poliomyelitis)

The last great polio epidemics plagued Ireland in the mid 1950s as well as the rest of Europe and America

Gerry Costello

What is Polio? (Poliomyelitis):

Polio is mainly a disease of children and young adults caused by polio enterovirus type 1, 2 or 3. This once much feared illness occurred in numerous epidemics. The last great polio epidemics plagued Ireland in the mid 1950s as well as the rest of Europe and America. The inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) was developed by Jonas Salk in late 1955 and the oral polio vaccine (OPV), became available in 1962 following the work of Albert Sabin. The widespread use of these vaccines has made acute polio in the developed world a rarity. It is estimated that there are approximately 7,500 survivors of polio living in the Republic of Ireland at present. Most of these people are middle aged or becoming elderly.


Polio is caused by an enterovirus of high infectivity whose main route of infection is via the human gastrointestinal tract. Infection is oral and the virus multiplies in the gut for one to three weeks, after which the person either recovers or becomes very ill. Infection rates are very high but the vast majority of patients show no symptoms or appear as if they have a flu-like illness. As said, Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus. It can strike at any age, but affects mainly children under the age of five. The disease can cause paralysis, which is almost always irreversible. In the most severe cases, polio can cause the breathing and swallowing muscles to paralyse, leading to death by asphyxiation. Polio was a very common disease in Ireland in the 1950s. The health of children was always a worry for parents and in the 1950s there was an epidemic of Polio which was especially feared. Everyone knew someone who suffered with the diseases. In 1957, the first polio vaccine was introduced here and by the mid-1960s, few cases were being reported. Europe was declared polio-free in 2002 because of extensive vaccination programmes over many years. The local doctors visited the homes weekly of families who had young children to provide the vaccination injections. Later on the injection was dropped for a pink syrup drop on a sugar lump and administered through the national schools.






This page was added on 09/02/2015.

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