The Forgotten Victims Of Polio

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Sick and tired of the threat of viruses that totally disrupt our life? Well, there’s another elephant in the room that no one is talking about. Its name is Poliomyelitis, a virus that has no cure and no specific treatment. Recently the polio virus was detected in New York City’s wastewater. When I heard the snippet of news, it felt like ice-water was running through my veins. This is not news the world wants right now, as it continues to deal with COVID, but polio is highly contagious and spreads through person-to-person contact.


Polio virus has caused paralysis and death for much of human history. In the late 1940s and 50s, it killed over half a million people. But, what of all the other people who were forced to live with the effects of the virus? One man lived in an iron lung for 70 years. Others were confined to a wheelchair, crutches, leg braces, or breathing devices for the rest of their lives.

Polio is a virus that attacks the motor neurons of the body, that relay messages from the spinal cord to muscles, frequently leading to muscle degeneration. Of those affected with irreversible paralysis, 5 to 10% die. While there is no cure, it is preventable through safe and effective vaccination. By 1966, there was a mass vaccination against the disease, particularly in schools.

Polio Up Close and the Forgotten Victims

Yes, there are lots of people out there who are anti-vaccination, but have they ever seen polio in action up close? I was a polio victim in the early 1950s pandemic. No one else in my family had polio. I was in high school and none of my schoolmates had polio. So where did I contract it? I had to have been close to someone who had the virus but showed no symptoms.

I was one of the lucky ones; it was only the ‘flu’ side of polio. In children, paralysis occurs in one in 1,000 cases. In adults, it is one in 75 cases. There are many forgotten victims of polio.

Iron Lung

 In the room next door in the hospital was a young woman in her twenties, who is now one of the forgotten victims of polio. Her only method of breathing, was to have her body placed in an iron lung, a type of negative pressure ventilator. It enclosed the patient’s body and varied the air pressure in the enclosed space, to stimulate breathing.

The highlight of her year was when the nurses used a mini version of the lung and took her to the horse races for a couple of hours. Now days, they have much better machines for impaired polio patients, but is that a way of life anyone would choose? Polio was a driving force in modern rehabilitation therapy and innovations in public health.

Forgotten Victims Of Polio

Survivors of the polio virus say they’re forgotten but they’re still there. For many of the survivors of the forgotten pandemic, new health problems are just beginning as they reach into their twilight years. There are around 40,000 such survivors in Australia alone. Many of these now experience symptoms recognized as post-polio syndrome–PPS. The symptoms may include muscle weakness, pain, and debilitating fatigue. Some people develop neurological symptoms.

In the words of one aged survivor, Gayle Kennedy, as reported in the Guardian,  “Post-polio is horrendous. You think that you’ve gone through all the bad times and suddenly you find yourself getting weaker and begin experiencing pain and brain fog and fatigue. I went into a deep depression. But I allowed myself that. I allowed myself the sadness … Eventually, I started to build a new life for myself. And I’ve done all my traveling overseas in a wheelchair. I decided to become a writer.” Gayle is 66, and one of the youngest survivors of the 50s pandemic.

Tired of Viruses

The general population is sick and tired of the subject of viruses, but unfortunately, they are a fact of life in our modern world of air travel, etc. The best any of us can do is to keep fit and healthy. There are no magic formulas and quick fix cures. We need to keep smiling and look forward to tomorrow and know the healing hand of laughter.

Check out more posts at Whispering Encouragement

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    Wendy is an Inspirational Freelance Writer specializing in offering encouragement to women in all walks of life.

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