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Polio - a disease that haunts its victims

Gudrun Heise
October 27, 2016

Paralysis in arms and legs are typical symptoms of polio. When those symptoms fade, many patients overtax themselves with exercises. And then the danger increases; the symptoms return later in life.

Symbolbild Rollstuhl
Image: Picture-Alliance/KEYSTONE

Post Polio Syndrome

Poliomelitis is a viral infection that is transmitted orally. It can originate either from traces of feces or saliva and gets into the blood via the gastro intestinal tract.

Most people who get infected with the virus never suffer an outbreak or show symptoms. Roughly 90 percent of those who have it are unaware they are carrying the virus. They have developed an immunity against a specific strain of virus - of which there are several, however.

Iron lung respiration machine
The iron lung was often used to respirate children suffering from polio in the 1950sImage: picture alliance/IMAGNO/Austrian Archives

What happens to people who suffer an outbreak

It is mostly young children who suffer serious outbreaks. Polio damages the nervous system, resulting in paralysis, mostly of legs, arms and the spinal area. In the worst case, this can be fatal.

Patients can suffer from between just over a year to decades. Often, a remaining damage of polio is that an arm or a leg remains shorter than the other. In the case of the leg, this needs to be corrected in a complicated operation. Doctors must shorten the longer leg - reestablishing equality around the hip and easing the burden on the joints.

But generally, growing healthy nerves takes over the function of the damaged nerves and the paralysis symptoms eventually fade. Many patients return to a somewhat normal life after a few years of suffering.

Does it still exist?

Generally speaking, most people today are vaccinated. Vaccines are the only effective prevention against the disease. Since 1960, children have received the polio vaccine on sugar cubes. Today, vaccines are generally administered as a shot in the arm. Europe has been considered polio free since 1998, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) failed to meet it's target of worldwide polio eradication by the year 2000.

Vaccine against polio
Since the 1960s children received oral vaccines. Today, they receive a shot in the arm. Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Polio has returned mainly in the world's crisis regions, where medical care is lacking, countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and a number of other countries in Asia and Africa. In some cases, fanatical religious groups have used violence against medical workers administering vaccines.

Can polio return?

Yes, Post Polio Syndrome (PPS) is a result of an earlier polio infection, which often occurred in early childhood. Almost all of those who once suffered from polio will experience some degree of recurring symptoms from the viral infection - often 30 to 40 years after the disease initially took hold.

It is known that PPS is often related to excessive physical work or sports. The patients who thought that they had overcome the illness then feel a return of the symptoms: physical pain, breathing difficulties, sleep disturbances, fatigue and tiredness - often leading to life in a wheelchair.

Postpolio physiotherapy, doctor Thomas Bach
There is only one specialized clinic for PPS patients in Germany. Image: picture-alliance/dpa

PPS - a rare disease

The Post Polio Syndrom is a rare disease in the developed world. In Germany, for example, around 70.000 patients suffer from these symptoms.

As a result, research into the illness is rare; universities don't teach it, and many doctors are unaware of the symptoms. In 2001, the first specialized clinic opened in Koblenz. Now it is treating about 500 PPS patients per year. Although they can help them with exercise, rehabilitation and coping with pain, the doctors can neither slow down nor stop PPS. There is no medicine for this yet.