Until recently, polio was universally dreaded. Epidemics struck leaving thousands of people – usually children – paralyzed or seriously disabled. Only with the development of the Salk vaccine in 1955 was this disease finally tamed. Yet the legacy of polio still lingers. A debilitating disorder known as post-polio syndrome (PPS) affects many of the estimated 50,000 Canadians who had polio between 1927 and 1962. Thousands of Quebecers who contracted polio are at risk of developing PPS, or may already suffer from it unknowingly.
“Symptoms can appear as long as 30 or 40 years after the original illness,” says Dr. Daria Trojan, a physiatrist who sees polio patients at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre. “Major warning signs are new and persistent muscle weakness, fatigue and pain.” The disorder may also cause difficulty in breathing or swallowing. Patients with PPS at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital are diagnosed and treated in partnership with local rehabilitation centres such as the Constance-Lethbridge Rehabilitation Centre. The goal is to help patients manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Because the last polio epidemics in North America occurred in the 1950s, most patients are in their fifties or sixties. However, there are also patients from other age groups, including some in their twenties and thirties who immigrated to Canada from areas where polio is not yet eradicated.
“We educate people with PPS, refer them to physiotherapists or occupational therapists, and prescribe appropriate equipment, including leg braces, wheelchairs or crutches,” adds Dr. Trojan. “We also focus on pain management, because people with PPS are often prone to musculoskeletal difficulties, and therefore often suffer joint pain. Many patients learn a technique called pacing. This involves taking regular rests during periods of activity to help manage fatigue and muscle pain.”
PPS is the subject of a new video released by Polio Québec, presented by Dr. Christiane Laberge, General Practitioner and regular health commentator on television and radio programs. Polio Québec is a non-profit organization that supports people who have had polio and their helpers by providing resources and information.