Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

If the Victorian government had acted on medical evidence in the 1950s, many would have been spared polio.

Awareness of post-polio syndrome has again been raised, making it timely to consider the scandal surrounding state government inaction in the 1950s that resulted in hundreds of children becoming polio victims who might otherwise have been spared.

For my part, I've always blamed the injections I had at school in the year that I ended up in an iron lung in Ballarat's Base Hospital. So did my parents. Now I know this to be true and it's all there in the British medical journal The Lancet.

Recently I stumbled on critical research published in The Lancet in April 1950 linking polio with whooping cough and diphtheria immunisation. In the weeks leading up to my personal D-Day in September 1951, I was immunised at Lexton State School in central Victoria against whooping cough and diphtheria as well as smallpox. And that was in the days when you were given a ''live'' virus.

In my case there was a problem with the first diphtheria shot and I was given a second injection, presumably for certainty. Some three weeks later, during the second round of diphtheria injections, the syringe and needle came apart and vaccine squirted into my face. Again I was given a second dose. I could hardly move my right arm the next day. When I contracted polio a few weeks later, it seemed no coincidence that the paralysis most severely affected my arms, my right one in particular. My left arm was (and still is) partly paralysed, my right arm totally.

I was not the only child in that central Victorian district to get polio. About 20 kilometres down the road at Addington State School, Joan Flynn, a young girl from a Waubra potato farm, had the same injections. She was admitted to Ballarat's Ward 9 even before I was.

The revelatory research, as it happens, was done by Dr Bertram McCloskey, the Victorian Health Department's polio officer, who actually treated me in Ballarat. His report in The Lancet makes disturbing reading, even today. McCloskey reports that 375 cases of polio were notified in Victoria between January and August 1949, and of the 340 cases investigated, 211 of these had ''a history of previous immunisation against whooping cough and/or diphtheria''. This showed, he wrote, that there was ''considerable evidence that a correlation between inoculation and poliomyelitis infection existed in this epidemic''.

He said the more recent the injection, the more likely was its association with the onset of polio. ''The data revealed that the last injection before the onset of symptoms was that usually associated with the location of paralysis.'' In 17 cases of children under the age of three, he found there was considerable evidence to confirm that the paralysis was more severe in the last inoculated limbs of these children. I was 10 at the time, but that was certainly true in my case.

Another doctor, Dennis Geffen, came to similar conclusions in London. It staggers me that, despite these findings, the Health Department and Victorian government of the day still allowed the school immunisation scheme to go ahead during the polio epidemic. McCloskey reported his findings to Victoria's chief health officer, Dr G.E. Cole, on July 20, 1949, but it was decided to defer any action ''until further evidence had been collected''.

The Australian Medical Association journal at the time advised the medical profession to ''avoid inoculation of youngsters between five and 16 against whooping cough or diphtheria in communities where there is an outbreak of polio''. This never happened as far as I could see.

The journal said McCloskey discussed his findings with Professor F. M. Burnet (later Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet) and Dr E.V. Keogh, of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, and with Dr H. McLorinan, superintendent of the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Fairfield. They agreed there was some link between the injections and polio and ''this raised questions of great importance from the viewpoint of public-health administration''.

What happened next astounds me. McCloskey also wrote that ''it was feared that immunisation, particularly against diphtheria, might be prejudiced if the public were informed''. This meeting of medical minds seems to have considered keeping this crucial evidence from the public. The chief health officer put the committee's opinion to Victoria's Consultative Council on Poliomyelitis for an opinion ''on whether or not the medical profession and the public should be informed''. The council recommended advising doctors to discontinue using whooping cough vaccine during the polio epidemic and to inform the public, but action on diphtheria immunisation was thought to be unnecessary because ''the evidence was less certain''.

The Lancet said a ''brief statement'' was issued to the press. Unbelievably, McCloskey wrote: ''The announcement caused no unfavourable press comment so there is no reason to suppose that the future of immunisation in Victoria has been prejudiced.'' Presumably the ''brief statement'' downplayed the seriousness of McCloskey's findings.

The Australian findings prompted a study by the New York City Department of Health, but doctors in the US claimed the study was not extensive enough. Nonetheless, the American Medical Association journal in an editorial advised that ''postponement of such immunisations for a few months until the end of the epidemic would appear particularly discreet''. That certainly didn't happen in Australia. I'm living proof of that.

Kevin Norbury is a former Age journalist.