Sunday 20 October 2019

How the effects of Polio can return

Polio has largely been eradicated in Ireland. But for some people who had it earlier in life, like Povl Thim, its effects can return. Fintan Lambe spoke to Povl

POVL THIM barely remembers being in hospital with polio when he was a toddler. Little did anyone know then, that even though he recovered from his illness, and led a relatively normal life, certain symptoms of the disabling of the disease would come back to affect him some 60 years later.

Most parents these days have very little knowledge of polio, and what the disease is, as it has been eradicated from the Irish population, thanks to an extensive vaccination programme which was introduced in Ireland in the early Sixties.

The polio vaccination is included in the 'six in one' vaccination that every newborn infant receives. While today's young parents might be unaware of the importance of this vaccination, their grandparents' generation certainly remembers polio.

'It came in epidemics, in clusters,' explained Povl, who lives in Gorey. 'In the Fifties, there was a big outbreak in Cork, but it was all over the country. Most people I'm in contact with now, they had it in the earlyto mid-Fifties. That was the last big outbreak in Ireland.'

Polio is a viral infection which attacks the nervous system. It's airborne, so can be spread like a cold or flu, or can be picked up from unwashed vegetables, and so on.

'It can target almost any area of the body,' said Povl. ' Early symptoms are like a flu, and fortunately for some people, it only turns out like a flu. Around 60 per cent of people get paralysis. Some people were permanently paralysed, but for others, they recovered to a certain degree. It might be there are weaknesses present all the time, but they can live their life.'

Povl, who was born and reared in Denmark, contracted polio at 18 months. 'I was paralysed in the whole right-hand side,' he said. 'I was at home most of the time, but I remember being in hospital. My sister was in hospital too because she had it.

'I remember my parents standing outside, looking in at us in the ward. They weren't allowed to come in. I remember my arm not functioning as it should.'

He said that as soon as the flu symptoms are over, the polio is no longer contagious. 'Then it's a matter of rehabilitation,' he said.

The vaccine isn't effective in people who have already contracted polio, and there is no cure for the disease.

Povl made a recovery and led a normal working life. 'I started school at the normal time, and the only problem I had was in PE. I couldn't do everything. I couldn't stand on my hands,' he remembered.

However, at the age of 63, effects of the disease returned. 'I didn't know what the cramps were, so I saw a doctor and got a scan, but they couldn't see anything on it,' he said. 'My sister used to work in an orthopaedic hospital back home, and she put me to the idea it might be post-polio syndrome (PPS).'

'The nerve cells that aren't damaged try to reconnect with other ones, and anyone working over time, eventually says enough is enough,' he explained. 'It's starts off like pins and needles, and pains and aches in the areas affected. It can happen any time from 20 to 60 years later.'

That's where the Post Polio Support Group comes in. Povl is its Wexford convenor. 'We have 22 members in Co. Wexford, but not all are active members,' he said. The group meets in Enniscorthy each month, and offers information on various treatments and supports that are available.

'People might discuss where to get special shoes and so on,' he said. 'I have a mobility scooter. We get occupational therapists to come to the home to see what can be done for people.'

The group has also issued a book for medical professionals, explaining the management and treatment in primary care for post-polio syndrome. Around 7,500 people nationwide had polio, and the group has 900 members. Potentially, another 5,000 people could have PPS and not know it.

'People who had polio might never develop PPS,' he said, adding that it was only in more recent decades that PPS was identified as being an end result of polio.

Povl experienced cramp and pain in his leg, and it grew weaker and weaker. 'It doesn't stop me, it only stops me walking too far,' he said. 'I don't go walking in the street without my stick.' He still keeps active, and enjoys a regular Monday night game of pool in Gorey with his friends from the Gorey Active Retirement Association. However, he has had to give up bowling.

The Post-Polio Support Group meets for an informal chat and a cuppa in the Riverside Park Hotel, Enniscorthy, on the first Tuesday of every month at 8 p.m. All are welcome, and anyone interested can contact Povl on 086 8107598.

World Polio Day was celebrated this week, on Monday, October 24. The World Health Organisation, with funding from Rotary International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has set the goal of eradicating the disease from the planet. 'They're trying to get the polio vaccine out to as many corners of the world as possible, and give the vaccine to as many people as possible' said Povl. More information on the fight to eradicate polio is available at

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