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.
For those who have symptoms that they believe may be related to past polio infection, the quest to find a doctor who understands can be difficult. After all, many younger doctors have never encountered polio firsthand, or its sequelae. However, there are sites and organizations that can provide information for patients to enable them to seek assistance appropriately, such as Post-Polio (http://www.post-polio.org/edu/pabout.html). They suggest that patients contact their primary care physician for any of these symptoms that might be associated with post-polio syndrome, and perhaps request a neuromuscular exam with a specialist in post-polio issues:
Unaccustomed fatigue – either rapid muscle tiring or feeling of total body exhaustion.
New weakness in muscles, both those originally affected and those seemingly unaffected.
Pain in muscles and, or joints.
Sleeping, breathing or swallowing problems, and, or decreased ability to tolerate cold temperatures.
It is important to realize that these issues, while they may be the result of a person having had polio, do not represent a re-infection, and the person is not contagious.
For more information about polio today, see http://www.cdc.gov/polio/. To see how Rotary is working to eradicate polio, see its fact sheet or ask a local Rotarian: http://www.rotary.org/RIdocuments/en_pdf/polioplus_fact_sheet_en.pdf.
When we finally eradicate this disease worldwide, we will have much to be thankful for.
Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.