Polio survivors face new challenges

On Monday, National Public Radio aired a story about Dr. Lauro Halstead, a doctor who published his research about what would come to be known as post-polio syndrome (PPS) 25 years ago this month. Halstead’s research described PPS as a condition that affects polio survivors decades after they were first struck by the disease and causes new weakening in muscles and joints, as well as general fatigue and exhaustion after minimal activity. For his work to educate the medical community about PPS, some polio survivors call him the “champion of the post-polio community.”

One of the reasons Halstead can speak with authority about the condition is that he survived polio and now experiences the symptoms of PPS himself. At 73 years old, he continues to work and the list of patients waiting to see him is growing. He uses a motorized scooter to get around, wears a leg brace, and takes naps in the afternoon to help his fatigue. When he talks with patients about ways to live with PPS, he often suggests some of the techniques that have helped him. Sometimes its a hard sell. Polio survivors have usually worked hard to regain a “normal” life and are proud of being independent people. Trying to convince them that they need to slow down and use canes, braces, or wheelchairs is difficult because they feel like they’re giving in to the disease.

National health and polio organizations estimate that there are between 440,000 and 775, 000 polio survivors alive today. PPS may effect 25-60% of them. At the same time, the number of doctors specializing in polio is falling as the disease is defeated. The number of people infected with polio was greatly reduced in the 1950s and 1960s as vaccines were created and there hasn’t been a new case of polio in the United States since 1979. Dr. Halstead is one of just a handful of doctors who specializes in polio but he’d like to retire. He’s hoping to find a young doctor that he can mentor to take over his practice first.

The NPR website for this story contains the original radio broadcast and a summary of the story. It also includes many postings from polio survivors suffering from PPS in which they talk about the ways they have learned to cope with the symptoms.

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