Australia’s forgotten disease

Polio is often an overlooked disease in Australia, but Malek Sleiman is reminded every day as she deals with the ongoing effects of polio.

Malek contracted polio at only 15 months of age in 1981, currently making her probably the youngest person to have contracted polio in Australia. As a single mother of four, it is important that Malek can stay on her feet.

‘It’s a case of mind of matter,’ Malek says. ‘I have to be strong for the sake of my kids. There are days where I don’t leave my house, because I’m in pain. But when I do feel good, I try and make the most of it.

Malek Sleiman
Malek Sleiman

Malek is able to lead an active life with the support of Polio Services Victoria (PSV) at St Vincent’s, the only dedicated public polio service in Australia, PSV provides ongoing expertise and support for people who have had polio, comprising a multi-disciplinary team that offers assessment, referral, education and group programs across Victoria.

Physiotherapist Claire Formby says that there is a prevailing view that polio is no longer an issue in Australia, or that only those who are very old suffer from it, but that is not the case.

‘There is a group of Australian born and infected individuals aged 50 upwards who access our service,’ says Claire. ‘Malek is one of the youngest people to ever access our service.’

‘Traditionally, the majority of our clients have been older Australians, but we are now finding our growing referrals come from overseas, particularly refugees.’

As polio survivors get older, they can begin to show further symptoms, which include new weakness, joint and muscle pain and fatigue, known as ‘late effects of polio’.

Malek is still learning about her disability as she begins to show some of these symptoms.

‘I only noticed recently, when I kept tripping and then I had a real bad fall, where I cut my knee open, and I thought “something is not right”’.

‘PSV called me to check in and I spoke to them about it and they said, “you need to come in and see us ASAP”’.

Claire and the orthotic team have helped Malek with a new orthotic aid, as well as education and strategies to help her stay on her feet.

‘The support of PSV is great,’ Malek says. ‘The clinicians are amazing and it means I can do something about my disability so that I am there for my kids.’


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