The 60th anniversary of the Coventry polio outbreak of 1957 will be marked today, but why did it happen?

The 60th anniversary of the Coventry polio outbreak of 1957 will be marked today as part of a campaign to eradicate the disease. The One Last Push campaign, which supports global efforts to eradicate polio, is holding an event today at the Coventry Transport Museum to mark the 60th anniversary of the Coventry polio outbreak of 1957.

In the summer of 1957, Coventry became the subject of national attention when an outbreak of poliomyelitis struck the city. A series of supply issues had led to a shortage of the new polio vaccine, and many who had registered their children for immunisation were yet to receive their course of injections. Worse, the Ministry of Health refused to divert vaccine from non-epidemic areas to help deal with the crisis, or even to import extra supplies from abroad. Over July, August and September, the press made a series of accusations about government incompetence at the local and national levels, claiming that this was an avoidable tragedy.

Coventry had found itself victim to these supply issues, with only 6,000 of its 11,000 registered children receiving the vaccine. This was broadly in line with the national average. This became politically sensitive when an epidemic ran through the city in the summer of 1957. Coventry was in Warwickshire, around 25 kilometres east of Birmingham and 140 kilometres north-west of London. Although part of the historic county of Warwickshire, since the reorganisation of local government in the 1970s Coventry is in West Midlands. Over the twentieth century, it had become a centre for car and motor cycle manufacturing. During the 1950s, a massive rebuilding project had been required due to heavy damage sustained during devastating German bombing raids in 1940. The city’s population was expanding, both as a result of declining mortality rates and migration from Ireland and other areas to work in the motor industry. According to the census, the city’s population was 258,211 in 1951. In 1957, the mid-year estimate was 277,300.

Despite the national Conservative government, Coventry had a predominantly Labour council, and all three of the city’s Members of Parliament (MPs) represented Labour. Two of these, Maurice Edelman and Richard Crossman, were nationally recognised. Crossman was a political heavyweight, and would go on to be the key architect of social security policy in the Wilson governments of the 1960s. Edelman, meanwhile, was an author who was adept at using the media. He had written plays for the newly formed Independent Television Association, and would be the main campaigner in Parliament for Coventry during the epidemic. The ‘crisis’ in Coventry played out over the course of just a few months, with most of the news stories being printed in the first weeks of August. While the epidemic itself was newsworthy, Edelman’s machinations undoubtedly focused national attention.

Coventry did not have the worst rates of polio per capita in the country, but its plight was framed as the consequence of chronic government mismanagement. Maidstone was the worst affected local authority, and Lincoln was also noted for the severity of its epidemic. In Edelman, the City had an articulate national spokesman to make this case, and, whether by design or by coincidence, he created a scandal that could not be ignored.

The press in Coventry reported an upsurge in polio cases in mid-July. Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Thomas Morris Clayton, made announcements and undertook interviews to help disseminate public health advice. Concern had been raised as the number of cases up to that point implied that the summer of 1957 would see more poliomyelitis than the previous worst year for the disease in the city, 1953. Clayton wrote to the Ministry of Health asking for more supplies of polio vaccine to help build greater immunity in the population. On Friday, 2 August, Clayton told the City that this request had been denied. At this point, Maurice Edelman, the MP for Coventry North, took up the matter in Westminster. He announced that he would meet with the Ministry and make another request. After a telephone call on Saturday morning, he declared that the government had changed its mind and would be providing more vaccine for Coventry.

Read more – ‘A matter of commonsense’: the Coventry poliomyelitis epidemic 1957 and the British public (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13619462.2016.1247701).

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