Childhood polio virus catches up with seniors

AS WE age the natural cell degeneration has started to raise health issues that seem may inexplicable unless you unknowingly had polio as a child.

Australia was announced polio virus-free since 2000, but as we are ageing after experiencing the polio epidemics of the '30s, '40s and '50s and as late as 1962, there are residual effects from those earlier years that are surprising.

Whether you had polio or were living in a household where there was polio, the gastrointestinal virus could have had an impact on you.

Polio Australia's national program manager Maryann Liethof said if you are experiencing symptoms such as muscle weakness which doesn't seem the norm for you, particularly if you are 65 or 70, it's important you tell your GP and your physiotherapist about your family's history of polio.

Paralytic polio sufferer Eric Rushton, 72, suggests going even further, ensuring that any medical personnel you are working with know about any polio history you have.

During his late-50s Eric started to experience again gradual decline in muscle function. "I wasn't aware polio was something you could mostly recover from only to have symptoms return decades later," he said.

Eric found medical personnel from dentists to physiotherapists and even hospital surgical staff, were not aware of the Late Effects of Polio.

"It's not the polio virus you have got to worry about, it's what the polio virus did to your body," Ms Liethof said.

Could you have had non-paralytic polio?

Ms Liethof said if a baby had flu-like symptoms, they may have been diagnosed with encephalitis. "Everyone who contracted polio would have had some form of encephalitis or inflammation of the brain because that is what the disease does," Ms Liethof said.

"You may not have been diagnosed with polio, especially if you didn't have paralysis that lasted any length of time, but that doesn't mean that you weren't infected with the virus. You may not have had subclinical damage done."

Subclinical damage meant a child had minimal motor neuronal damage and if the child had anywhere between 10 and 30 per cent of their motor neurones killed off, there would have had some form of muscle weakness.

"As a child that may have looked like slow physical development without it appearing to be anything more sinister," Ms Liethof said. "Where the motor neurones were killed off they would have regrown little sprouts to take up the innovation of the muscle."

However, as cell degeneration starts to occur in older Australians, those who contracted the polio virus as a child may find themselves experiencing Post-Polio Syndrome where the sprouts retract from the muscles leading to muscle atrophy, muscle and joint pain and even respiratory problems.

There is also the biomechanical decline associated with late effects of polio which has pain attached, but of a different kind. While they may be obvious they are a lot harder to diagnose.

What is paralytic polio?

"You have to have had at least 50 per cent or more of your motor neurons killed off at the time of the viral infection for paralysis to have set in," Ms Liethof added.

Paralytic polio would have left a child with a residual disability such as slight limp, smaller foot or shorter leg, or with upper body conditions like a withered shoulder and possibly respiratory problems.

"Even polio survivors need to be told that the problems they have are not just ageing; they are the by-products of their polio," Eric added.

Australia continues to vaccinate babies age two, four and six months and again at four years old. "We will continue to vaccinate forever," Ms Liethof said.

For more information, go to Polio Australia.

For seniors diagnosed with Late Effects of Polio, they are invited to join the Polio Australia register to help the organisation collect further statistics.

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