Post-Polio Syndrome—a Disease of the 21st Century
Rehab Manag 2000 Dec-Jan;13(1):48-52
By Julie K. Silver, M.D.

Reprinted with the gracious permission of Julie K. Silver, M.D., June 2000


Julie K. Silver, MD is the Medical Director of the Spaulding-Framingham Outpatient Center. She teaches at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Dr. Silver's new book "Post Polio Syndrome--A Practical Guide for All Polio Survivors and their Families" is scheduled for release in early-2001 by Yale University Press

"Polio is spectacular, the way it strikes, the way it kills, the way it leaves its trademark." This is the opening line of Robert Hall's memoir, Through the Storm—A Polio Story. Polio is, or rather was, a spectacular and wildly uncontrolled disease that occurred in epidemics worldwide in the first half of the 20th century. The World Health Organization expects to eradicate polio worldwide by the end of 2000, and the last reported case of polio in the United States (from the wild virus and not vaccine related) was in 1979. However, there was a time not so long ago that polio was one of the most feared diseases.

Ironically it was through a series of technological advances, including improving sanitation and cleaning up water supplies, that the poliovirus was allowed to flourish. Counterintuitively, the poliovirus primarily attacked middle and upper class families who had improved living conditions but no immunity (in the past they would have acquired immunity through tainted water supplies). Thus, the number of polio cases reported reached epidemic proportions year after year until the mid-1950's when a vaccine was discovered. Polio will long be remembered as one of the most important and devastating health crises of the 20th century.

Ali Buckley is a 46-year-old nurse who contracted polio when she was 2 years old. Following an initial 2-week hospitalization in which Ali had severe right leg paralysis, she used a wheelchair for more than a year. There were few supports in place for children with disabilities, so Ali reports, "I lost an entire grade and was tutored at home." Ali also recalls that there was such hysteria at the time that she contracted polio that her father's dental practice had to be closed for several months because no one would go to him for fear that he might spread the poliovirus to them. Ali contracted polio in the summer of 1955 and for several summers thereafter, she would endure orthopedic surgeries on her legs to help her regain her ability to walk. For more than 30 years following these surgeries, Ali walked without any mobility devices or braces, but Ali recalls, "I hated summer because it always meant surgeries."

The polio epidemics were an important social and political issue as well as a public health issue. In part because of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States who was in office from 1933-1945 and who himself was a polio survivor. FDR was instrumental in promoting the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) that supported nearly all of the research and treatment of polio. The NFIP later became known as the March of Dimes when all across the country people were asked to leave their porch lights on so that mothers could go door to door and collect money to fight this dreaded disease.

Then in the mid 1950s, both the Salk and the Sabin vaccines were found to be effective and the incidence of polio dramatically declined. The March of Dimes went on to fight birth defects and polio survivors went on with their lives…

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, © 2000
Julie K. Silver, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
1291 Worcester Road
Framingham, MA 01701
Phone (508) 872-2200

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