Blog | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A polio survivor in pictures

Poliomyelitis is a contagious viral disease that affects nerves and can lead to paralysis. Most people under the age of 50 don't know that polio was once an epidemic that killed and paralyzed millions of people between 1840 and the 1950's. It was one of the most feared infections worldwide. Modern polio vaccination has almost wiped out the disease.

It is rare for physicians in the United States to see the effects of polio and most will never encounter it in their career. There are reported to be about 450,000 polio survivors in the U.S. who have some disability from prior polio infection.

My patient (now in her 70s) was kind enough to allow these photos of her left arm paralysis from polio she contracted at age 9. Her story is amazing. She was kept bedridden in a "crippled children's home" in New Jersey for over a year. During that year every one of her children roommates died. She did not attend school and even though she could walk, she was kept in bed. Her weight ballooned up to 250 lbs from eating and lack of activity. Her parents finally took her home because they could see her health declining and her muscles wasting.

Post-polio syndrome is a well-recognized diagnosis that occurs years after polio recovery. Polio survivors experience new muscle weakening and atrophy. General fatigue and weakness is common in post-polio syndrome, as it is in my patient.

When parents are afraid of vaccinating their children, they should look back at history and realize how far we have come from epidemics and killed and maimed.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.