Treatable middle-class plague polio is making a comeback

Imagine being totally immobilized, your breathing done for you mechanically, only your mind free to move…

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I remember her mostly for her… infirmity. Audrey was a grade school

classmate of mine who stood out for the fact that she wore a heavy leg brace and had a pronounced limp.

Naturally, this limited her mobility and, as someone with whom I shared a classroom but not the playground, I never really came to know her.

She was the only visible victim, in my small circle while growing up in Saanich, of that nerve and muscle-wasting scourge of the 1940s and ’50s, polio (poliomyelitis aka infantile paralysis).

Oh, there was another classmate later, in junior high, and a man with whom I corresponded on the history of the Island’s West Coast who was stricken by polio in the ’60s while in his 60s. But that pretty much sums up my tenuous acquaintanceship with polio.

I had a recent reminder of this crippling affliction during a visit to the Cumberland Museum. There, so casually exhibited in a hallway that you can almost pass it by, is a real heartbreaker for those who do take notice. It’s a homely, homemade (of plywood and improvised fittings) iron lung. At first glance, this ungainly respirator draws to mind the Iron Maiden, a torture device from the Middle Ages. And make no mistake, for any person unfortunate enough to have been placed in the Cumberland iron lung, life, while prolonged, would have been torture.

Imagine being totally immobilized, your breathing done for you mechanically, only your mind free to move. Yes, it kept you alive, just, but talk about a fate worse than death…

But, you say, they found a cure for polio, decades ago, the famous Salk vaccine? Yes, they did, and it’s proven to be a most effective antidote, and truly a medical miracle. Only last month, India was declared to be polio free, no new cases having been reported in three years.

Which puts polio into the past, right? Tragically, no. Globally, polio is making a comeback. Last week, the World Health Organization warned that polio could "grow in the next few months and unravel the nearly three-decade effort to

eradicate the crippling disease". Mostly because of civil unrest, there have been outbreaks in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, with eastern Europe predicted as its next stop.

"Until it is eradicated, polio will continue to spread internationally, find and paralyze susceptible kids," said Dr. Bruce Aylward, who leads the WHO’s polio efforts.

Polio is curable when and where an effective vaccination program is in place. It’s recurring in countries where it was eradicated, such as Syria, Somalia, Iraq and at least seven other nations torn by civil strife. As of April, confirmed polio cases world-wide were running three-toone vs. this time last year. This, in the months of the year when the polio virus is normally dormant, meaning that it could spike in coming months, and WHO officials are debating whether to declare an international health emergency.

According to the Times-Colonist, last week’s decision "means numerous measures

will be adopted, including requiring people from countries exporting polio cases to have a certificate of polio vaccination before being able to travel internationally…"

There’s a fascinating story behind B.C.’s repeated jousts with what’s been called the "middle class plague" over the past century.

(To be continued)