In May 1957, England came up against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley and won 5-1. Within two years, one in four of the players on show would be dead.
Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, Liam Whelan died in the Munich crash of February 1958 and Duncan Edwards succumbed to his injuries shortly afterwards.
But it was Jeff Hall’s death in April 1959 that had the most far reaching and lasting impact.
Hall was born in Roger Bannister’s year, 1929, and, at the age of 27, the game against the Republic would be the Birmingham City man’s last cap. Don Howe, later a famous coach, took his place despite Hall’s partnership with Roger Byrne yielding only the one defeat in 17 games. Compare Bobby Moore, who lost four of his first seventeen.
In March 1959, Jeff Hall played against Portsmouth at Fratton Park, then began feeling ill. He was diagnosed with polio, went into hospital, and died there only two weeks later.
Polio was not an ancient killer in Britain; it was no tuberculosis. As in the U.S., it had its terrible heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, provoking “polio scares” and killing or crippling its victims. Youth and vigour were no defence.
Jonas Salk’s vaccination against polio was freely available in Britain by 1959, and had been for some years. But Jeff Hall hadn’t had it, and neither had the majority of his generation. Vaccination wasn’t the automatic choice that it became. What happened to Hall changed that attitude overnight.
On April 4th, he died. On the fifth, Hall headlined the Monday papers. Birmingham mourned the loss of a famous son. But everywhere else, in coffee bars, dance halls, cinemas, pubs and biker cafes, the message was clear: if it can happen to him, it can happen to me.
Crowds demanding vaccination surrounded ordinary GP surgeries and NHS hospitals. Authorities opened emergency clinics. Jets flew in from the States with extra supplies.
By the beginning of the 1960s, polio vaccination was being given to every schoolchild. Polio soon ceased to be a part of British life. In 1955, there were 6,000 polio cases. In 2005, there were none. If it wasn’t for the determination of certain Nigerian imams to spread conspiracy theories, the disease would all but have ceased to exist.
If only it was just Nigeria. In Britain, the Lancet’s publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper about the MMR jab, and the anti-MMR autism scare that followed in the Independent and elsewhere, has helped to end children’s herd immunity to measles. Herd immunity needs vaccination rates of at least 95%. In recent years, the percentage has dropped to 90.
But the anti-MMR campaigners could not have thrived had others not laid the ground for them. The homeopathic community in Britain contains organized groups and individuals who propagandize against the whole idea of vaccination and have done so for many years. Then there is the science-is-just-another-ideology idea, the natural-products-versus-chemicals wing of the green movement, the Thalidomide disaster and other contributing factors.
The anti-MMR campaign has had measurable results. Measles cases jumped 30% in 2007 alone. It’s not what the anti-vaccinators want to happen. But it’s what they get. In 2001, there were 72 cases of mumps in Wales; in 2005, 3,000. In 2003, Scotland saw 181 cases; in 2004, 3,595.
Pre-1988 vaccination programmes had significant weaknesses and the figures include immigrants whose own childhood immunisation is unclear. It’s not all down to the Wakefield fiasco. But the drop in immunisation take-up is large, measurable, and has only partly been reversed. And that involves the anti-MMR movement up to their necks.
Britain might have forgotten Jeff Hall, but Birmingham City certainly hasn’t. A clock was erected in Jeff’s memory at St Andrews shortly after his death, and there’ll shortly be a new one, chosen by Birmingham fans, after they deemed the initial replacement clock too small.