Polio Eradication Adjournment

11 October 2011

This evening I rise to speak on an important topic for Australia and the world, and that is the eradication of poliomyelitis, or polio. Over 10 years ago, the World Health Organisation recognised that polio had stopped circulating in Australia and, indeed, in the western Pacific region. It is a truly important achievement. The eradication of polio from Australia brought a great deal of relief to so many. Globally, the incidence of polio has been reduced by a staggering 99 per cent over the past 30 years. That is thanks to a vaccine developed in the 1950s and distributed by governments and non-government organisations—like Rotary International—worldwide. Over the last 25 years, Rotary have been a driving force in the eradication of polio across many parts of the world. I am pleased that they are now part of a very strong push to finally end polio and completely eradicate this virus. As Rotary says about ending polio: 'It's a wind­ow of opportunity of historic proportions.'

This month is Polio Awareness Month. There are, I believe, a couple of things that we need to be aware of. The first is that, as organisations like Rotary and others such as UNICEF tell us, polio still has devastating effects in countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. The second relates to the lasting effects that polio has had, and continues to have, on Australians. There is an important relationship between these two. We must stop this virus in its tracks for the humane reason of preventing thousands of people suffering its painful, debilitating and even deadly effects. It is a trauma that is still remembered here in Australia and many still live with its legacy. We are very fortunate that we have eradicated the disease here. It is a freedom that all should have and it is achievable if we commit ourselves to this effort.

Fortunately at a global level a lot is being done to eradicate polio but there is much more to be done. Much of the drive for this hard work is happening at a community level. For example, The End of Polio campaign is a grassroots campaign coordin­ated by the Global Poverty Project, in support of the efforts of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative by Rotary Interna­tional, UNICEF, the World Health Organisa­tion and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of this work, I am very pleased to say, is being done in my home state of Western Australia. Just last week, The End of Polio campaign held a breakfast in Perth to raise awareness of the work that needs to be done and to raise funds for this very important work. The breakfast was held in conjunction with the Rotaract Club of Subiaco and it packed the Perth Convention Centre. I would particularly like to acknowl­edge the work of Tegan Smith of the Rotaract Club of Subiaco. Tegan was the event coordinator for the End of Polio Breakfast and I think its success is an attribute of her wonderful donation of time and energy. Tegan is such a great example of the difference so many have made in committing to doing something about polio. All of those collective and individual efforts really have added up.

I also thank the Governor of Western Australia, Malcolm McCusker, for making a significant contribution to the event. I also congratulate Michael Sheldrick of The End of Polio campaign on his efforts in coordinating this important campaign. The campaign has been working hard to get the eradication of polio on the agenda for the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Perth at the end of this month. I think it is really fitting that in Polio Awareness Month this goal will be realised.

The End of Polio campaign has also planned a fantastic End of Polio Concert on 28 October, as part of the CHOGM events, at a great venue, the Belvoir Amphitheatre. I am very much looking forward to it because I am going to be able to see one of my favourite Australian hip-hop bands, Bliss n Eso, along with some other great acts: John Legend, The Getaway Plan, Hungry Kids of Hungary, Calling All Cars, Owl Eyes, and Andy Bull. It is going to be a fantastic event. I am looking forward to showing my support and I really encourage people in Perth to get down and enjoy it. Ending polio, as the campaign says, is the right thing to do, so do come down and support that fantastic event.

I am pleased to be part of a government that is doing its bit to eradicate polio in other countries. We directly fund polio eradication activities in endemic countries and ongoing vaccination efforts in other priority countries. For example, there is the Afghani­stan Polio Eradication Initiative, there is a United Nations initiative in Burma and there are polio vaccinations in Pacific island countries. Globally, we are so near to eradicating polio and with just some more effort this important goal can be achieved. I hope the call is heeded at CHOGM.

The ending of the polio virus in Australia belies the devastating effect the virus has had on our country, and these effects are still felt today. Major epidemics of the virus happened in every decade from the 1930s through to the 1950s in Australia. It is estimated that over 70,000 people were affected, but that figure is very hard to quantify because of the social and physical isolation and the stigma attached to the disease, poor health records and misdiag­nosis. Tens of thousands of Australian families were affected. It knew no bound­aries. Indeed, the former leader of the ALP and the current Australian Ambassador to the United States, the Hon. Kim Beazley, contracted polio at the age of six.

Some years ago the ABC TV program Timeframe pointed out a small piece of history which today, with CHOGM coming up, has resonance. Sharing the newspaper headlines with the 1954 polio epidemic was Queen Elizabeth II's first visit to Australia. Protecting her against the disease became almost an obsession. In Perth, where the epidemic was peaking, many precautions were taken to protect both our monarch and the large numbers of people who would be coming to see her. However, without anyone knowing it, the Queen had already been in direct contact with the disease. Betty Beazley, in Canberra with her husband, ALP frontbencher Kim Beazley Snr, was unaware that she was carrying the infection when she shook the Queen's hand. Fortunately, the Queen remained unscathed, and Mrs Beazley and her son Kim Jr made a complete recovery. The Beazley family story may have hit the headlines but there were also tens of thousands more Australians who were affected by this virus.

In my remarks this evening I would like to highlight that Post-Polio Health International have initiated 'We're Still Here!' week this week—Sunday 9 to Saturday 15 October—as part of Polio Awareness Month. Many people who experienced polio as a child still have symptoms and will recognise new symptoms in the years to come. Polio Australia calls this group of people the invisible group. As Polio Australia's President, Gillian Thomas, says:

Many polio survivors who have emerging symptoms tell me about the difficulty they have in obtaining correct diagnosis and treatment.…

As time passes, an increasing number of previously ‘stable’ persons with a history of polio infection experience new symptoms. The large number of survivors who are now reporting these symptoms has transformed the problem from an individual predicament to a social concern.

Getting on with raising awareness of the need to do more to eradicate this virus globally so that not only people in Australia but the people of India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan do not have to live with these devastating effects is a very important agenda. It is also important to keep raising awareness of the effects of postpolio syndrome here in Australia. I thank all the wonderful people who are doing this important work, and I look forward to seeing them at CHOGM.