It is often thought of as a disease of yesteryear, but for many victims of polio, the condition is now returning to haunt them in old age. Sarah Freeman reports.
Paul Marchant was just 12 weeks old when his parents suspected something was wrong.
He wasn’t moving like his five older sisters had and a few months later doctors confirmed the worst. The newest addition to the Marchant family had contracted polio. They was not alone.
Until the mid-1960s when the disease was wiped out in this country thanks to mass vaccination, polio epidemics were a regular and devastating part of British life. For some, the virus, which first attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord, meant paralysis and withered limbs. For others, who saw the disease spread to their lungs, it often proved fatal or resulted in long-term dependency on oxygen.
Paul always felt he was one of the lucky ones. He doesn’t remember the months he spent in the isolation unit at Seacroft Hospital in Leeds and he quickly learnt to live with the after effects of the condition.
“It effected my arms and my legs, but as a child I guess you’re pretty adaptable and I grew up knowing no different,” says Paul. “I know some people struggled, but I honestly never did. The school I went to had a lot of other children who had contracted polio in the same 1949 outbreak, so we were all in the same boat.”
After leaving school Paul got a job as a television engineer and rarely had a day off sick. There was, he says, the odd frustration, that his legs occasionally held him back, but otherwise he felt he’d made a good recovery.
“I had always been pretty fit and ended up working as a maintenance engineer for Lloyds Bank. The job meant I was up and down ladders all day. It was never a problem, but then one day it was. I went to move my leg, but it just wouldn’t budge.”
Paul was displaying the first signs of post-polio syndrome, which experts now estimate affects eight of 10 of the 120,000 survivors living in the UK.
“I never even knew the condition existed,” he says. “I’d just got on with my life and never felt the need to join any support society, so I’d never been aware that the virus could become active again causing the symptoms to return. I was 45-years-old, but I felt like I was 60 and from that point on I developed all sorts of problems. I asked my doctor if exercise would help, but they told me it would only make the situation worse.
“There was nothing anyone could do and eventually I had no option but to give up work.”
Post-polio syndrome was first recognised by the medical profession in the 1980s. However, the scale of the problem has only become apparent in recent years as more polio survivors live long enough to develop it. At the moment experts aren’t sure whether it is caused by the original virus becoming reactivated or whether it’s the result of nerve damage from the initial infection.
“While it is true that medicines have helped to eradicate new cases of polio in Britain, it is misleading to say that we have ‘got rid’ of the disease,” says Ted Hill of the British Polio Fellowship, which was set up in 1939. “The effects of polio are most definitely still with us – even in the UK and many original sufferers now facing a whole new battle with PPS.”
While there is no specific cure, Paul and many like him are successfully managing the condition.
“The hardest thing was not been able to work, suddenly you have a very big hole to fill,” he says. “I have good days and bad days, but over the years I have got better at pacing myself. I’ve also become involved with the society, which has been good for me. There are a few of us who try to meet up once a month and it’s good to know that there are other people who know how you are feeling and what you are going through. With something like PPS, you can end up becoming quite isolated.”