Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
You are on Poliomyelitis
Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

the polio virus

Polio has probably always been with us.  The oldest clearly identifiable reference to paralytic poliomyelitis is an Egyptian stele or stone engraving over 3000 years old.1  Before the advent of modern sewage treatment, poliovirus was endemic in the water supply, and most people probably were infected as infants, while they were still nursing, when the mother's immune system protected them.2  In the late 19th century, engineering projects were initiated in the industrialised nations to separate human waste from drinking water.  While these efforts helped control the spread of diseases like cholera, it meant that children were not exposed to poliovirus until they were older, long after their mothers' immunity had worn off.  The result was epidemics of poliomyelitis, or infantile paralysis.

Detail of an Egyptian stele showing a priest with a withered leg using a cane for support.
Detail of an Egyptian stele showing a priest
with a withered leg using a cane for support.

Poliovirus is an enterovirus.  There are three serotypes: type I, called brunhilde; type II, called lansing; and type III, called leon.3  It enters the body through the mouth, presumably when a substance infected with fecal matter is swallowed, and multiplies in the lymph tissues of the pharynx and intestines.  A small amount of the virus travels through the bloodstream to other sites, where it multiplies.4

In 80–90% of those infected, this is the limit of the disease.  Those infected suffer slight fevers, malaise, headache, sore throat, and vomiting 3–5 days after they are exposed.  They recover within 24–72 hours.  This is called abortive polio.5

The virus is dumped into the bloodstream again; its target this time is the central nervous system, the spinal cord, and the brain.6  Even this more serious form of disease may not result in paralysis, but the temporary affliction of the central nervous system may lead to irritability, pain in the back and limbs, muscle tenderness, and stiff neck.7

It is from this action that the disease gets it name.  It is an "inflammation (-itis) of the grey (poliós) anterior matter of the spinal cord (myelós)."8

If the infection inflames the anterior horn cells of the spinal cord, the motor nerves, temporary paralysis results.  Recovery may take up to two years, and may be incomplete; weakened muscles may be a permanent result.9
If the inflammation is severe enough to destroy the motor nerves, paralysis is permanent.  This is paralytic poliomyelitis.10 

Only the motor nerves are affected by the polio virus; the sensory nerves are not affected at all.  Even if full and permanent paralysis results, sensation is not diminished.11

The extent of paralysis is dependent upon how high up the spinal cord the destruction occurs.  If destruction is limited to the lower or mid-section of the spine, various levels of paralysis will result.  Destruction of the upper part of the spinal cord, affecting the ability to breathe, is called respiratory poliomyelitis.   Destruction of bulb, or brainstem results in bulbar poliomyelitis, which impairs the ability to swallow.  Secretions may collect in the throat and cut off the airway, strangling the patient.12 

Once infected, there is no medical treatment, only physical therapies to assist the body in surviving to fight the disease.  In the 40s and 50s, rocking tables were used to prevent the buildup of fluids in the lungs, which might lead to pneumonia.  Patients are isolated.  At one time, before the poliovirus was understood, isolation was meant to protect the uninfected; now we know it is more useful to protect the patient against opportunistic respiratory infections.13   If the patient cannot breathe, a respirator is used.  At one time, these were iron lungs.  Respiratory poliomyelitis may require a tracheotomy to prevent strangulation.14

Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1.  Dove, Alan.  "A Brief History of Polio."  Polio Information Center Online.   1999.   (8 May 1999).

2.  Seavey, Nina Gilden (writer and director).   "A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America."  Oregon Public Broadcasting.  1998.

3.  "Polioviruses."  On-line Medical Dictionary.  12 December 1998.  http://www.graylab.ac.uk/cgi-bin/omd?polioviruses,+human+1-3.    (15 May 1999).

4.  "Poliomyelitis."   MedicineNethttp://www.medicinenet.com/Script/Main/Art.asp?li=MNI&d=155
.  (15 May 1999).

5.  ibid.

6.  ibid.

7.  "Poliomyelitis." Encyclopędia Britannica.  15th Edition.  Chicago, Illinois: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 1980.  p. 81.

8.  Seavey, Nina Gilden, Jane S. Smith, & Paul Wagner.  A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph over Polio in America.  New York, New York: TV Books, 1998.   p 34.

9.  MedicineNet.  loc. cit.

10.  Encyclopędia Britannica.  loc. cit.

11.  Dobrowolsky, Donna.   "Polio."  Saskatchewan Awareness of Post Polio Society, Inc.   http://www.sfn.saskatoon.sk.ca/health/polio/polio.html.   (27 May 1999).

12.  Encyclopędia Britannica.  loc. cit.

13.  Seavey.  "A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America."

14.  Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.   New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1990.