How the death of a Birmingham City player turned the tide against polio

An aerial shot of the Birmingham City stadium, St Andrews

Reports of polio in London recall 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 nasty health surprise following the Covid-19 pandemic and recent reports of the spread of monkeypox.

For some, its return is a reminder of a bygone era. Polio is a horrible disease. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, and among those who end up with this condition, 5% to 10% die when their respiratory muscles become immobilized.

It was common in this country until the late 1950s, when the death of a professional footballer from the disease ended up having far-reaching consequences for the health of us all.

At the start of the 1958/59 season, City of Birmingham Full-back Jeff Hall was 28 and had already been at the club for almost nine years, having first been spotted as a top scout while playing during his national service.

After making his debut with the club in 1951, two years later he became a regular in the first team and was part of the team that finished the 1955/56 season in sixth place in the First Division – still a record for club – and reached the FA. Cup final for the second and, so far, last. He also made 17 appearances for England.

The night before a First Division match at Portsmouth on 21 March 1959, Hall complained of difficulty swallowing. There was nothing noticeably wrong with his performance the following day and it was only after the game that he appeared (according to journalist Dennis Shaw in his 2014 autobiography A Game of Three Halves) “looking terrible, of pale face and tearful eyes.” , exhausted’.

Hall asked if he could drive back to the West Midlands in a car instead of the team coach as he felt the latter would take longer.

Hall coached a Birmingham youth team who were due to play in a televised five-a-side tournament the following day and was keen to return to support them. Those who saw him at the tournament confirmed that he seemed fine, but this state of affairs did not last. The next day he was rushed to the hospital and immediately diagnosed with polio.

Players from Birmingham and Portsmouth were immediately quarantined, and those from other clubs who had played them in the previous weeks, including a broadcast team who had filmed. the replay of the FA Cup semi-final between Luton Town and Norwich City at St Andrews, three days before Hall’s final appearance in Birmingham, they were ordered to see their doctors for tests.

By this time, a polio vaccine had been available in Britain since 1956, but uptake had been slow. Initially offered only to children, public support had been seriously affected by a hasty release in the US that led to people contracting the virus from the vaccine itself, and by 1958 only slightly more than half of those eligible l they had taken

That year, the vaccine was rolled out to adults aged 18 to 26, but of more than six million eligible people only 40,000 had one or two shots, and only a third, a scant 13,000, had had both.

By then it was already known that vigorous exercise could help spread the virus through the body, and there was a great deal of media interest in Hall’s condition following his hospitalization in both the local and national press, with updates daily about their status. 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 papers in Birmingham began to report a large increase in the number of people receiving the polio vaccine within days of his first illness, and in the week after his death a pre-written message from Health Minister Derek Walker-Smith. every football field in the country urged those under the age of 26 to get vaccinated without delay.

An exceptionally brave television interview with his widow Dawn had a similar galvanizing effect, and within a couple of weeks it was reported that stocks of the vaccine were beginning to run low and that in some parts of the country they had to suspend

Dawn Clements devoted the rest of her life to defending the vaccine and warning of the risks of this preventable disease, and within a few years the benefits of her campaign had already become apparent. There had been over 3,000 cases of polio in the UK in 1955, the last year before the vaccine was introduced. By 1963, that number had dropped to just 39, and within two decades the disease appeared to have been eradicated in this country.

No case of polio has yet been reported in this country since 1984, and the UK was officially declared polio-free in 2003. Dawn was recognized posthumously for his work in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List in 2016.

There is no cure for polio. The vaccine is the only option. But while it might have been preventable, Hall’s death was not in vain. It is impossible to say how many lives could have been saved by the vaccination rush that followed his death, but the answer is likely to be in the thousands. Before 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. The ‘polio season’ was a well-known medical phenomenon.

That this should have been reduced to zero is a testament to the power of vaccines, to an advocate who was tireless in their promotion, and to a professional footballer whose life would not have been shortened if I could have taken it. to himself


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