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December 13, 2012

Problems can erupt 40 years after polio infection

If you grew up in the early years of the Baby Boom or prior to, then you remember the fear that the word “polio” (poliomyelitis) instilled in parents of small children.

Many people remember a television newscast about polio being the first time they ever heard the word “epidemic,” or understood its meaning. The disease seemed to affect children more than adults, probably because the virus is transmitted most commonly by the fecal-oral route, and parents were terrified. In 1952, there were approximately 58,000 cases. Just ten years later, after the Salk and Sabin vaccines were introduced, there were fewer than 1,000. Many of us remember standing in line at school to receive the immunizations for which our parents were only too happy to sign permission slips. Today, you might only hear about polio as part of a history lesson. If you are a member of Rotary International, you might be part of the effort to eradicate the disease in other parts of the world where it still exists.

It is thought that there are between 10 million and 20 million polio survivors worldwide. In fact, polio victims were a very vocal force in the fight for disability rights, and were likely very instrumental in getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed.

Among people who recovered from polio, some have lasting effects from this highly contagious viral infection, which could cause paralysis, respiratory problems, disability or death.

Sadly, polio is making a comeback. Under-vaccinated children are contracting the disease. There are also people who thought they were at a particular plateau of recovery, but are finding that they are not.

Post-polio syndrome is a condition that can occur up to 40 years after infection (the last naturally occurring case of polio in the U.S. was in 1979). Symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, deformity, and further muscle weakness and deterioration. There is no cure for post-polio syndrome so treatment is aimed at symptoms.

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