Eight million or more people worldwide who survived polio decades ago face new affliction as their disease comes back to haunt them in the form of post-polio syndrome, according to a report from a team of medical experts.
In the United States, the number of victims may range from 250,000 to 1 million.
There is no cure for post-polio syndrome, which leaves many victims in wheelchairs and on ventilators for the rest of their lives. Ironically, the most effective treatment for the disease is rest and the use of canes and wheelchairs -- opposite the approach that helped people survive their initial encounters with polio.
Unfortunately, few victims are receiving the proper therapy because most physicians do not recognize the symptoms of post-polio syndrome and some even refuse to believe it exists, the report said.
"We are having difficulty in alerting the world medical community to the problems of post-polio syndrome," said Dr. Lewis P. Rowland of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. "Most doctors in their 40s or younger in developed countries have never even seen a case of polio, much less recognized a case of post-polio syndrome," said Rowland, who is chairman of the March of Dimes Steering Committee on Post-Polio Syndrome. The March of Dimes sponsored the new report.
Symptoms include overwhelming fatigue, muscle weakness, muscle and joint pain, cold intolerance, sleep disorders, and breathing and swallowing problems.
The general consensus among most experts is that post-polio syndrome arises because the patient's nerves wear out. Even people who survive polio experience extensive nerve damage because the virus destroys large numbers of nerve cells in victims' muscles -- 60 percent or more in severely affected limbs. With intensive therapy, the remaining nerve cells are able to take over the function of the dead cells, restoring motion.
But years of overwork by those nerve cells takes a toll, leading them to begin dying off themselves, thereby once again producing the symptoms of the disease. The only way to slow the disease is to use the muscles less: by sitting instead of standing, using a wheelchair instead of walking.
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