For Some Survivors, Polio Casts a Long Shadow

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Decades after the vaccine, adults with post-polio syndrome are struggling with symptoms — and looking for answers.

Brad Fuller survived polio as a toddler, a few years before the vaccine was available. Decades later his issues with balance and muscle weakness intensified, symptoms that were diagnosed as post-polio syndrome. 

RAD FULLER was a toddler when he contracted polio in 1952 and was sent to a hospital miles from his northeast Pennsylvania home. He stayed there for nine months, enduring long stints in an iron lung, a large metallic ventilator that helped him breathe. Fuller’s parents were allowed only rare visits. His earliest memory is of a nurse holding him in a mineral pool, instructing him to kick his legs.

That year marked the epidemic’s peak, when roughly 58,000 American children and adults developed polio and 3,000 of them died. In this respect, Fuller was lucky. The disease spared him, leaving only a weakened left leg and right arm. He was able to play tennis and football and train as a clinical psychologist. He built a career leading non-profits while teaching part time at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Despite his childhood ordeal, Fuller said, he felt invincible.

Then, in his 40s, a new doctor offered to treat his post-polio. Fuller was taken aback. It was the first time he’d heard the term. But the symptoms, like increased muscle weakness and poor balance, had been creeping up. At one point, he’d fallen and injured his knee. He now wears a full leg-brace and because he falls so often, he has taught himself to land easily. “I think if I was a typical person” — a person without a background in mental health — “I would have immediately gone into denial,” he said.

Scientists believe that the poliovirus has been around for thousands of years, but it did not cause epidemics until the late 1800s, when countries like the United States and the United Kingdom began to experience waves of increasing severity. By the 1940s and early 50s, the polio terror was killing or paralyzing more than a half million people globally each year. To treat the overwhelming number of sick people, hospitals created the first intensive care units. Many of those ICU patients were children and young adults.

Then came a pair of highly effective vaccines, the first of which was licensed in 1955. Case rates plummeted within a matter of years, and the virus was soon eradicated from entire countries. The vaccines are widely viewed as a triumph of public health. “My mother would have given anything to have a vaccine” for her children, recalls Fuller. But for those who had already been infected and survived, there was a downside. Polio “supposedly disappeared,” Fuller said. “That means research stopped.”

This history is bittersweet for patients who now struggle with post-polio syndrome, or PPS, which affects 25 to 40 percent of survivors. As adults, these individuals face an array of new symptoms stemming from their initial infection — everything from pain and renewed muscle weakness to fatigue to problems speaking and swallowing. PPS affects up to 300,000 people in the U.S., and globally the figure could be as high as 15 to 20 million people, according to some estimates. Most polio survivors in developed countries are 65 and older, said Marny Eulberg, a physician with PPS who ran one of the first dedicated clinics in the U.S. Survivors in the developing world are often younger.

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