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Shadow of U.S. polio epidemic likely to be seen for years to come

Richard Daggett
Richard Daggett in an iron lung at age 13

A recent outbreak of polio in Syria has raised concerns over global effort to eradicate the disease. Although polio hasn’t been seen in the US for years, the effects of the virus are beginning to reappear in the health care system through a condition known as Post-Polio Syndrome.

Richard Daggett contracted polio as a 13 year old at the height of the epidemic in the early 1950s. Roughly 30 years after he’d recovered from the disease he went through what seemed to be a relapse, experiencing weakened muscles and breathing issues. At the time, Post-Polio syndrome was a little known condition.

Listen to our followup discussion on WXXI's Innovation Conversation edition of 1370 connection featuring Richard Daggett and polio pioneer Janice Nichols, author of Twin Voices: A Memoir of Polio, the Forgotten Killer.

“Sometimes you have to educate the doctors because most doctors haven’t seen a polio patient,” Daggett says, speaking with the aid of a ventilator.

He says post-polio syndrome has been an invisible problem for years, and no one saw it coming.

“We thought, I thought that once you reached a plateau after your initial polio and you recovered to whatever extent you did, that would be the way you’d be the rest of your life. Nobody told us, well 30 years later watch out. It was never mentioned, nobody even thought about it.”

But, as younger survivors of polio from the 1960s and 1970s age, many are likely to experience the same muscle weakness, breathing problems and pain caused by the trauma their bodies sustained from the polio virus.

There were an estimated 1 million polio survivors in the US in 1995. And, although there aren’t precise current numbers, researchers have estimated that between 25 and 40 percent of survivors will experience Post-Polio syndrome (PPS)

Daggett says health care providers need to realize that the disease will continue to have an impact in the health care system for years.

“They should be aware that it’s going to be a long term effort. Even if there’s no new cases, even if we magically wipe out all new cases, worldwide there are millions of polio survivors and many of those are going through the same things I’m going through. They’re basically just falling apart.”

“I see young people that maybe got polio in the '70s or '80s, and I’m wondering what’s it going to be like in 10 years, these people are going to start having problems.”

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail