Kōrero: Epidemics

Whārangi 4. The polio era, 1920s to 1960s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Improved sanitation and water supplies virtually eliminated the major bacterial diseases of the 19th century from New Zealand’s European population by the 1920s. Non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease replaced epidemic diseases as the leading causes of death.

Ancient disease

Polio is probably a very old disease – a 3,500-year-old Egyptian wall carving shows a man with the characteristic withered leg of a polio victim.


Apart from isolated outbreaks of diphtheria and typhoid, and continued high death rates from tuberculosis, the most alarming infectious disease of this era was poliomyelitis (polio), an acute viral disease affecting the spinal cord and nervous system. Symptoms include fever, headache, malaise, pain and stiffness in back and neck, and partial or complete paralysis of limbs or the entire body. Case-fatality rates from paralytic polio have varied between 2% and 10%. New Zealand experienced polio epidemics in 1916, 1925, 1927, 1937, 1948–49, 1952–53 and 1955–56.

Polio is typically a disease of children and adolescents, but the risk of paralysis increases markedly with the age of the patient, making young adults especially at risk if they catch the disease. In early outbreaks there was no effective treatment, so careful nursing and palliative care (which alleviates symptoms rather than the cause) were the main medical responses. The lives of seriously paralysed patients could only be saved by long periods in a compression chamber or ‘iron lung’. Survivors with a withered leg were fitted with strengthening callipers, which helped them walk. Public health campaigns in the 1950s stressed personal hygiene – schools provided buckets of disinfectant in their toilet blocks.


Effective polio vaccines were developed in the 1950s. Jonas Salk’s inactivated vaccine of 1955 was followed by Albert Sabin’s weakened live virus oral vaccine in 1960. In New Zealand, use of the Salk vaccine delayed the reappearance of polio between 1956 and 1961. After this a mass immunisation campaign using the Sabin oral vaccine achieved high population coverage and eliminated the polio virus from New Zealand.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Geoff Rice, 'Epidemics - The polio era, 1920s to 1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/epidemics/page-4 (accessed 21 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Geoff Rice, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2024