Polio: The forgotten disease

Angela Davis

Sunday, November 05, 2017

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I was fortunate enough to hear Montego Bay resident Zoe McKenzie, a polio survivor, address a Rotary Club meeting recently.

She shared her polio story, which was a fascinating one.

On reflection, it made me realise that poliomyelitis is one of those diseases that has almost been forgotten and is seen as something of the past, along with conditions like leprosy.

It has existed for thousands of years, with the disease even being depicted in ancient art. It was first officially recognised in 1789. The virus which causes it was identified in 1908.

Today ,there are only three countries that continue to see the transmission of the polio virus — Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Only 34 polio cases were confirmed in 2016 and this can be attributed mainly to the worldwide vaccination programme that has been supported by organisations like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Rotary Foundation. Thankfully, we have not seen an outbreak in Jamaica since the 1980s; let's hope it remains that way.

Poliomyelitis is a highly contagious disease caused by a viral infection that attacks the nervous system. It tends to affect children under the age of five due to their immature immune systems.

The virus usually spreads from person to person through infected faecal matter via the mouth or by contaminated water and food. It multiplies in the gut and then invades the nervous system.

Initial symptoms will include fever, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, painful, weak limbs, and fatigue. Those infected may continue to spread the virus for up to six weeks after they have been infected, even if they show no symptoms.

Many patients will fully recover, however, a small percentage will develop a paralytic disease where muscles become weak, poorly controlled, or completely paralysed. This usually occurs in the lower limbs.


There is no cure for polio. The general focus is to provide relief from the symptoms and prevent complications. Long-term rehabilitation is often required with extensive physio, occupational and hydro therapies. Braces, corrective shoes and orthopaedic surgery may be indicated

It is possible for polio to return 15 to 40 years after recovery. This is called post-polio syndrome. Here the patient may start to have respiratory problems, muscle wasting and weakness, sleep apnoea, poor concentration, and depression.

Prevention is always better than cure and worldwide vaccination programmes have been implemented since the 1970s.

Though Zoe McKenzie has lived with the results of polio for most of her life, I was heartened to see that she has led a full and vibrant life and shows a tenacity that is hard to match.

World polio day is observed on October 24 each year. Let's hope that by next year it will be completely eradicated.

Angela Davis BSc (Hons) DPodM MChS is a podiatrist with offices in Montego Bay (293- 7119), Mandeville (962-2100), Ocho Rios (974-6339), Kingston (978-8392), and Savanna-la-Mar (955-3154). She is a member of the Health and Care Professions Council in the United Kingdom.




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