the current

How polio still affects survivors decades later

The challenges of dealing with the aftereffects of polio when the disease has been eradicated for decades.
Children diagnosed with polio were often confined to an iron lung to help regulate breathing. The disease attacked the respiratory muscles. (University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections)
Listen21:41

Canada has been polio-free for the last 20 years but it was once among the most dreaded childhood diseases in the country.

The disease hit hard in Canada in the early 1950s. At the peak of the outbreak in 1953 alone, there were 9,000 cases and 500 deaths. 

But in 1956, American researcher Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine and the disease was virtually eradicated in North America by the early '60s.  
Terry Wiens was a March Of Dimes poster child. (terrywiens.com)

Today, it's estimated there are 31,000 polio survivors in Canada. One of them is Terry Wiens. He was diagnosed with polio in the 1950s. And by the time he was 16, Wiens had spent a total of eight years in hospital.

"It was very different time then. So you didn't see your family. Eighty per cent of the kids in the hospital [had] polio so that was my family. Parents could only visit twice a week ... Siblings you sort of waved to them down in the parking lot," Wiens tells The Current's Friday host Nora Young. 

But the difficulty of a childhood in hospital isn't where the story ends for many polio survivors. 

Most now in their late 60's and early 70's are still living with the long-term legacy of the disease. Post-polio syndrome is mainly characterized by new weakening in muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection and in muscles that seemingly were unaffected.

For polio survivor Lois Hall, it wasn't until she was in her 40's that she started to take her onset of post-polio symptoms seriously, after occasional tripping led to a hard enough fall that broke her hip.

She tells Young that after several trips to specialists, she was finally diagnosed. Hall now uses a ventilator for breathing when she sleeps, swallowing has been difficult, and she's able to get around with a leg brace and elbow crutches.

What makes it challenging for the survivors — and the doctors who care for them — is that polio is seen as a disease of the past. And the knowledge of how to properly treat it is also fading.
Dr. Ming Chan says post-polio syndrome is hard to diagnose because symptoms can mimic other ailments like fibromyalgia. (Supplied)

"I did have one bad experience when I was outside my own community once and I had to get some medical assistance. They didn't believe [post-poilo syndrome] even existed," recalls Hall.

That's no surprise to Wiens. 

 "You really need to be able to advocate for yourself," he says.

Dr. Ming Chan, a rehab medicine specialist at Edmonton's Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, says that despite the fact that 50 to 70 per cent of polio survivors suffer from post-polio syndrome,  it can be hard to diagnose because symptoms can mimic other ailments like fibromyalgia. 

A further challenge is that it can be hard for patients to recall an illness that happened more than half a century ago.

"If you take a child at the age of three, I think their recollection of something happening in any detail is difficult. I have patients who only realized years later when they started asking their parents," says Chan.

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Winnipeg network producer Suzanne Dufresne and Vancouver network producer Anne Penman.