Reports of polio in London call to mind how the death of a Birmingham City player in 1959 helped persuade people to get vaccinated against it.
The news that all children aged one to nine living in Greater London will be offered a polio vaccine after the virus was detected in sewage will come as a shock to many. Polio is a disease that had been considered effectively eradicated, and its return is another unpleasant health surprise following on from the Covid-19 pandemic and recent concerning reports about the spread of monkeypox.
For some, its return is a reminder of a bygone age. Polio is a horrible disease. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, and among those who end up in this condition, between 5% and 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilised.
It was prevalent in this country until the end of the 1950s, when the death of a professional footballer from the disease ended up having far-reaching consequences for the health of all of us.
By the start of the 1958/59 season, Birmingham City full-back Jeff Hall was 28 years old and had already been with the club for almost nine years, having first been spotted the chief scout while playing during his national service.
After making his debut for the club in 1951, he became a first-team regular two years later and was part of the team that finished the 1955/56 season in sixth place in the First Division – still a club record – and reached the FA Cup final for the second, and to date last, time. He also made 17 appearances for England.
The night before a First Division match at Portsmouth on March 21, 1959, Hall complained of having difficulty swallowing. There was nothing notably poor about his performance the following day and it was only after the match, when he appeared looking (according to journalist Dennis Shaw in his 2014 autobiography A Game of Three Halves) ‘looking terrible, pale-faced, watery-eyed, exhausted’.
Hall asked if he could return to the West Midlands in a car rather than the team coach because he considered the latter would take longer.
Hall was coach to a Birmingham youth team that was due to play in a televised five-a-side tournament the following day and was keen to get back to support them. Those who saw him at the tournament confirmed that he looked fine to them, but this state of affairs didn’t last. The following day, he was rushed to hospital and immediately diagnosed with polio.
Players from both Birmingham and Portsmouth were put immediately into quarantine, and those from other clubs who had played them in previous weeks – including a broadcast crew who had filmed the FA cup semi-final replay between Luton Town and Norwich City at St Andrews’ three days before Hall’s final appearance for Birmingham – were ordered to visit their doctors for tests.
By this time a polio vaccine had been available in Britain since 1956, but take-up had been slow. Initially only offered to children, public support had been seriously affected by a rushed release in the USA which led to people catching the virus from the vaccine itself, and by 1958 only just over half of those eligible had taken it.
That year, the vaccine was rolled out to adults between the ages of 18 and 26, but out of more than six million eligible people only 40,000 had either one or two jabs, with only a third – a meagre 13,000 – having had both.
It was already well-known by that time that strenuous exercise could help to spread the virus around the body, and there was huge media interest in Hall’s condition after his hospitalisation in both the local and national press, with daily updates on his condition. The last of these updates was published on April 1, 1959. Despite extensive surgery as his condition deteriorated, Hall died on April 4, 1959. He was 29 years old.
The death of Manchester United left-back Roger Byrne in the Munich Air Disaster just over a year earlier meant that both of England’s first choice full-backs between 1955 and 1957 had died before the age of 30.
Local newspapers in Birmingham started reporting a large increase in the number of people getting the polio vaccine within days of him first falling ill, and the week after his death a pre-written message from the Minister for Health Derek Walker-Smith was read out at every football ground in the country urging those under the age of 26 to get themselves vaccinated without delay.
An exceptionally brave television interview with his widow Dawn had a similarly galvanising effect, and within a couple of weeks there were reports that stocks of the vaccine were starting to run low, and in some parts of the country had needed to be suspended.
Dawn Clements dedicated the rest of her life to advocating for the vaccine and warning of the risks of this preventable disease, and within just a few years the benefits of her campaign had already become obvious. There had been more than 3,000 cases of polio in the UK in 1955, the last year before the introduction of the vaccine. By 1963 that number had dropped to just 39, and within two decades the disease seemed to have been eradicated in this country.
There still hasn’t been a reported case of polio in this country since 1984, and the UK was formally declared polio-free in 2003. Dawn was posthumously recognised for her work in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2016.
There is no cure for polio. The vaccine is the only option. But preventable though it might have been, Hall’s death was not in vain. It’s impossible to say how many lives might have been saved by the vaccination rush that followed his passing, but it’s likely that the answer is in the thousands. Prior to the introduction of the vaccine, polio epidemics would result in up to 7,760 cases of paralytic polio in the UK each year and up to 750 deaths. ‘Polio season’ was a known medical phenomenon.
That this should have been reduced to zero is a testament to the both the power of vaccines, an advocate who was tireless in her promotion of them, and a professional footballer whose life wouldn’t have been cut short had he been able to take it himself.