This first blog post will be the facts about polio, not my personal story. Usually I will give you more story than data, but this is basic background FYI stuff about which people usually ask.
Although I do not clearly remember in entirety my own battery of polio symptoms at age three, in that fateful year of 1951, what is typical with both paralytic and non-paralytic types is an onset involving nausea, headache, sore throat, back and neck stiffness and pain. I know that I had pain and stiffness and was unable to stand up, ran a fever for a week and then was still contagious for two weeks, even when the fever had subsided. There are generally changes in reflexes and elevated spinal fluid cell count. Poliomyelitis virus, which is highly contagious, plus can be communicated by a person who has no symptoms, lives in the intestines and throat, but the usual gastro-intestinal flu symptoms of bowel difficulties are generally not present. It’s spread by direct contact with saliva or feces.
It mostly afflicts children, which is why it’s referred to as infantile paralysis. With paralytic polio, as I experienced in one leg, there is weakness in one or more muscle groups, which may or may not be permanent. Spinal polio involves the trunk or extremities, more often the lower ones, and this is the type I had. The people who had bulbospinal polio are the ones who had acute respiratory difficulty and were in iron lungs. There are just one or two dozen operative iron lungs still in the US, so that would be indicative of how few people are left sharing that equipment, surviving with this more life-threatening form. Most polio patients with breathing difficulties, which can also begin to surface late in life, now use ventilators.
Some who had paralysis of any kind recovered completely, and some did not. (I did not, but I regained the ability to stand and walk, more or less.) Regardless of recovery, most who had the disease experience new weakness, fatigue or pain thirty to fifty years after they first contracted it.
There were so many backward attitudes about disease in the first half of the twentieth century. If someone had cancer, the word was spoken in hushed tones. Polio had many stigmas attached. Accounts I’ve read describe almost paranoiac thinking similar to that surrounding AIDS in the 1980’s. You got polio from the air, you got it from touching someone who didn’t wash, you got it from associating with the wrong class of people, people who lived in filthy conditions and spat on the sidewalk. You got it from swimming pools. I wish I had five dollars for every person throughout my life who’s said, after asking me why I limped, and hearing I’d had polio, “You got it from swimming pools. You must have gone in swimming pools.” I never went in a swimming pool before I was at least nine. Swimming pools are highly chlorinated, generally, and it’s unlikely the virus could have lived in a chlorinated swimming pool. An un-chlorinated pool, even a wading pool, would not have been wise recreation and might have incubated the virus. The myth about pools likely started because a public pool was a venue where many people congregated in close proximity, especially children, somewhat similarly to when you catch a cold at a children’s party, or in a movie theater full of people who have a virus.
I don’t know specifically how I got it. There was an epidemic, and I was the one child in the neighborhood who got paralytic polio.