Fall 1994 Mission

Polio and the era of fear

Millions of Americans had taken the Salk and Sabin anti-polio vaccines by 1962, and an era of fear ended.

"Seeing polio go away was like witnessing a major miracle," said Malcolm C. Lancaster, MD, clinical professor of family practice.

Highly contagious, the poliovirus spread by contact with contaminated feces or oral secretions. Children were most vulnerable. The virus inflamed nerves in the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis of the muscles in the chest, leg or arms in severe cases. In 1950, 33,300 people were stricken.

Lacking a vaccine, the nation tried to halt the spread of polio by closing public pools and parks. Parents ordered their children not to drink from public water fountains. Schools canceled graduations as a precaution. The March of Dimes raised money for a cure. Few people who saw them can forget the organization's poster children -- adorable tots with braces and crutches who posed in fund-raising pictures.

For all its pain and grief, polio's era of fear provided knowledge that is useful today and would have been invaluable back in the '50s. For example:

"Most polio patients had enormous muscle pain," said William R. Gould, PhD, assistant professor of physical therapy and of cellular and structural biology. "The treatment of choice in those days was to apply moist heat packs to help alleviate the pain."

An estimated 250,000 Americans who survived the polio epidemic of the '40s and '50s now have a residual weakness called post-polio syndrome. Sufferers complain of joint pain, decreased endurance and muscle atrophy.

Dr. Walsh said the syndrome is associated with nerve loss from the initial polio. "Post-polio syndrome is the manifestation of the normal aging process in the polio victim," he said. "The polio victim has fewer nerves than they had before the virus, so with age they become weaker at a faster rate than others."

Dr. Stanton, who has treated two women with the syndrome, prescribes exercise that minimizes joint stress and muscle fatigue. Mild aerobics and weight training have been shown to help, Dr. Walsh said.

In most cases, Dr. Stanton said, pain associated with post-polio syndrome appears to result from victims overusing certain joints and muscles to compensate for the lost use of other joints or muscles. Citing one patient's case, Dr. Stanton said, "Her shoulders, or anyone's shoulders for that matter, were never made to haul her body weight back and forth to a wheelchair."

ArrowReturn to index