As my father contracted polio, or poliomyelitis as it formally known, at a young age, it is one of the crippling diseases of which the McCleland family is well aware. Before the advent of vaccines in the 1940s, this scourge could not be prevented and the treatments bordered upon the barbaric. About 10% of the victims ultimately succumbed to it. Fortunately, my father’s malady was less severe as it only affected one foot. Nevertheless, one leg was shorter than the other which precluded normal sporting and other activities.
This is the chronicle of that devastating disease, now largely forgotten.
Main picture: A polio patient in an iron lung in 1938
My father’s odyssey
Never discussed at the dinner table was when my father contracted the dreaded disease, how old he was at the time and what type of treatment he have to endure. In fact, it remained unuttered but the reticence to discuss did not imply shame but rather normality at his condition.
Perhaps it was a testament to the resilience of that generation. Instead, despite his limp, he volunteered for duty during WW2 and served in North Africa in the artillery as an artificer. How he managed to march properly is beyond me. He never let his affliction define him in any way. Instead, it was cast aside as if it was a figment of everybody else’s imagination.
Being born in 1911, he probably contracted polio long before Jonas Salk invented the vaccine in the 1950s that would eradicate this scourge.
As he died of cancer in 1983, this is one of the many mysteries and assorted questions that will never be answered. Interestingly, I have a copy of Military Records but nowhere does it state that his one leg is shorter than the other yet it lists other minor ailments that he contracted during his 5 years of service.
Symptoms and treatment
The paralysing effects of polio have always been devastating, but no one knew where it originated from or how it spread. Everything from flies to fast food was blamed for its rapid transmission.
In fact, it was transmitted through contact with faecal matter, by drinking contaminated water and eating food that has been touched by the unclean hands, and sometimes through coughs and sneezes.
The symptoms are definitive and unmistakeable: a monstrous headache, the enfeebling exhaustion, the severe nausea, the raging fever, the unbearable muscle ache, followed in another forty-eight hours by the paralysis.
At that moment, the common caricature of a victim of the disease would become visible – a frail, deformed limb – with its owner using a staff for support. Nowhere am I able to ascertain over what period this withering process occurred and whether it was akin for that or branch and vine severed from its goodness.
Apparently, Polio, or Poliomyelitis, has existed for millennia. There is even ancient Egyptian art which depicts a victim of the disease with a frail, deformed limb, using a staff for support.
Fortunately, outbreaks of the disease were relatively rare in the West until the late 19th century, when major epidemics swept Europe and the US.
These facts lead me to wonder when my father, Harry Clifford McCleland, contracted polio. When his father died of black water fever in 1925, the family was left destitute. As a consequence, my father was placed in an Afrikaans orphanage in Alexandria. Did he contract polio at this institution due its unsanitary conditions or was it just happenstance?
Once infected, the virus invades the nervous system and begins to destroy nerve cells which control the muscles, especially in the legs. If someone is paralysed by polio, there is a five to 10 per cent chance that they will die when the disease reaches their respiratory system. There is no cure.
Treatment was symptomatic and palliative with iron lungs and leg braces being the norm. The usual affected body part was the legs and if severe, it could even affect the lungs. Paralysis of the lungs required being inserted in an iron lung where, unless the polio’s attack abated, it was a death sentence.
Also required for severe cases were catheterisation, enemas, and treatment with steamed woollen hot packs wrapped around the affected arms and legs. The latter sessions were tortuous and together lasting as long as four to six hours.
In order to treat victims whose lungs had been compromised, the iron lung was invented in 1928 by American physiologists Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw. The huge ventilator, which left only the head visible, kept polio victims alive for a number of weeks while they recovered from the illness but those left permanently paralysed, could spend their whole lives encased in one.
Amongst the unusual victims of polio was 20-year-old Dawn Varma. She was paralysed by polio when she was 10 weeks’ pregnant, even gave birth while she was in an iron lung. Ms Varma, the wife of an Indian scientist, tending to her healthy newborn baby, called Dilip while inside the ventilator.
Finally, this scourge met its match in the form of Dr Jonas Salk. In 1952, he developed an injectable polio vaccine while Albert Sabin pioneered the oral variant in the form of vaccine drops in 1961. These had the advantage of spreading immunity through communities. These vaccines were highly effective, and cases in the US fell from 35,000 in 1953 to 5,300 in 1957.
Fortunately being born in 1953, I would not be at the mercy of this virus.
Success and new challenges
Now the disease is only endemic in three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, and there were just 37 cases last year. Optimistic health workers and other organisations claim that 2017 could be the year in which the world experiences its last case of polio.
Serious challenges, including violent attacks on vaccinators by Islamists and poor routine immunisation coverage, remain. Shortly even polio vaccination drops may be a distant memory as polio is finally eradicated from the earth and the trauma of this disease will fade into history.