Polio: Forgotten but not gone

October 4, 2018

Polio, a viral infection that attacks the nervous system and primarily impacts legs and lungs, was one of the most feared diseases of the 20th Century. New York City reported, and quarantined, 6,000 cases in 1916. Between the 1940s and early 1950s, polio crippled 35,000 people each year in the US. A vaccine for polio, whose symptoms mimic a cold with headache and chills, was first introduced by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955. Among the 1.8 million children who participated in the polio vaccine clinical trial was Dr. Alan Blum, the Gerald Leon Wallace MD Endowed Chair in Family Medicine at the College of Community Health Sciences. “I was in the second grade. We were all excited,” said Blum, who provided a recent lecture at the College about polio and post-polio syndrome. “Everyone wanted to get the vaccine.” There were some problems with the vaccine, Blum said, adding that Dr. Albert Sabin later developed an oral polio vaccine that provided lifelong immunity. Its use since then has eradicated polio in the US, but now doctors are seeing patients with post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects polio survivors years later, Blum said. He said there are 1.6 million polio survivors and it is estimated that 300,000 have post-polio syndrome. Many polio survivors experience gradual new weakening in muscles previously affected by the polio infection. Common symptoms include slowly progressive muscle weakness, fatigue and a gradual decrease in the size of muscles. While post-polio syndrome is rarely life-threatening, symptoms can significantly interfere with a person’s ability to function independently. Respiratory muscle weakness can result in trouble with proper breathing. Weaknesses in swallowing muscles can result in aspiration of food and liquids into the lungs and lead to pneumonia. The last case of polio in the US was 1979 and the country has been considered polio free since 1994. But cases of polio have recently reappeared, including in a Minnesota Amish community. That’s why vaccination and “herd immunity” are important, Blum said. “We are at risk because others are not taking the vaccine,” he said.