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Polio veteran worried infectious disease could return

Edith Morris of Hamilton has very few regrets in her life despite getting polio in 1945 when only six months old.

Pity is not in her vocabulary even though she has had a lifetime of health issues and the death of her second child Philip aged only nine months old in 1969.

“No matter what has happened, I’ve got a driving desire to be included, participating and a contributing member of society,” she says.

Edith could already rest on her laurels and let others get on with talking about polio and the issues facing people with disabilities. But that would go against how she’s lived her life. Leading up to World Polio Day on October 24, Edith wants people to know just how devastating the disease is and how the mention of its presence in a community should still strike fear in parents’ hearts and minds, as it did for decades worldwide.

Polio (poliomyelitis) is an infectious disease that can lead to a mild or a very serious illness. New Zealand had several significant polio epidemics from 1916 to 1956 but once a vaccine became available, immunisation rates soared resulting in New Zealand becoming polio-free by the year 2000.

Today the national immunisation schedule covers several diseases including a polio injection which is given at six weeks, three and five months with a final one at four years old.

Nothing would please Edith more than seeing the eradication of polio in her lifetime.

Edith worries that in New Zealand a blasé approach to vaccinations, which has seen the return of preventable diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough, could result in polio returning.

“Polio has largely gone from our national psyche. Most health professionals would never have seen childhood polio.”

Edith herself has Post-Polio Syndrome, one of hundreds of polio survivors afflicted with fatigue, weak muscles and new pain which has baffled the medical community since the 1980s.

Only three countries still have endemic polio – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, although worryingly 12 children have been diagnosed this year in Papua New Guinea.

Edith was born in Australia in 1944 and it was there in Sydney, while her father was serving in Papua New Guinea that her mother was told of the polio diagnosis.

The family felt New Zealand would be a good place for Edith to recover. Here benevolent families like the Wilsons (of Wilson and Horton newspapers fame) had established homes for polio children.

They moved to Northland where Edith was at first hospitalised and then at 18 months, admitted to the Wilson Home for Crippled Children (now Wilson Home Trust) in Takapuna.

When she started school, she wore two leg braces and used wooden underarm crutches. Until she was 22 she had frequent stays in Whangarei Hospital for leg and foot surgery and kept up with her schooling through the Correspondence School.

But the regular hospitalisations meant she got behind, so the then Crippled Children’s Society (CCS) provided extra lessons and private tuition, plus the society arranged for Edith to attend Seddon Memorial Technical College in Auckland to do a commercial course.

Her first office job was with Whangarei Engineering Company.

She married Noel in 1964 and CCS again stepped in, paying for driving lessons and then helping Edith get a Golden Kiwi-funded hand-controlled car.

The couple had Lynda, their first child in 1964 and then another five years later came Philip. His death, from medical causes, rocked the family but resulted in them wanting to help other people.

They attended Faith Bible College in 1972 and the following year moved to Japan as Christian missionaries where they remained until 1999.

Back in New Zealand they moved to Hamilton where they’ve been ever since. Lynda and husband Kevin, their sons Jonas and Isaiah and Edith, and Noel’s great grandson Otto, all live nearby.

Edith was elected to the Gracelands Trust board (now Enrich+) in 2001 when Robyn Kloss was the chief executive. She also worked with CCS as a Disability Awareness presenter, doing interviews and client satisfaction surveys. CCS paid for Edith to train as a quality auditor.

Thirty years ago, when the signs and symptoms of Post-Polio Syndrome – progressive muscle and joint weakness, general fatigue and exhaustion with minimal activity – became increasingly common, she joined the Post-Polio Support Society of NZ. The name changed to Polio NZ in 2012 to encompass all those who had polio and their families. Edith served as president for six years from 2008.

“A lot of people with polio tried to hide it,” says Edith who admits she did too. So did US President Franklin Roosevelt

“I was ashamed. I would walk behind Noel for example and arrive earlier and leave later than anyone else so that people wouldn’t see the way I walked. Sometimes I would be busting to go to the toilet!”

Over the years, Edith was actively involved in lobbying Hamilton City Council on a variety of projects including getting a hydrotherapy pool at Te Rapa, undertaking accessibility compliance audits and being part of a group that started up the Disability Expo at Claudelands.

Stints on Community Radio, the presidency of Polio NZ Inc and occasional presentations and interviews have kept her busy into her mid-70s.

A power wheelchair means she is able to get around easily. Her ability to walk without dragging her feet and getting exhausted is minimal.

A specially designed mini trampoline in the lounge helps her strengthen the leg muscles which are so damaged after years of walking with braces and crutches.

She has been a regular visitor to QE Health Wellness and Spa in Rotorua, where the soothing massages, warming volcanic mud, thermal waters and therapeutic spa treatments provide relief for post-polio patients.

Roosevelt was a huge fan of thermal water treatment and established the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Georgia, USA which is today a comprehensive centre for post-polio treatment, as is QE Health in Rotorua.

QE Health chief executive Andrina Romano says the Rotorua health facility has been helping people with Post-Polio Syndrome for more than 50 years working with both Polio NZ and the Duncan Foundation.

QE Health delivers assessment and rehabilitation planning services, in partnership with the Duncan Foundation, and offers a residential five-day course run by a multidisciplinary team to aid clients with post-polio syndrome.

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