HSE battles new wave of polio issues 30 years after last recorded case

Up to three patients a month presenting with post-polio syndrome at Beaumont Hospital

An iron lung helps a young boy with polio breath during the 1950s. Photograph: Jonathan Kirn/Corbis via Getty Images

An iron lung helps a young boy with polio breath during the 1950s. Photograph: Jonathan Kirn/Corbis via Getty Images

 

More than 30 years after the last Irish case of polio was recorded, the health service is treating a new wave of patients struggling with the complications of the disease.

Up to three new patients a month are presenting with post-polio syndrome at Beaumont Hospital, most of them drawn from among the “new Irish” communities.

Consultant neurologist Prof Orla Hardiman says about 70 per cent of the new patients at her post-polio clinic were born outside Ireland.

“The polio epidemic finished in the 1950s, and there were a few people in the 1960s who had polio. But we’re seeing a new wave of people now, a lot of Nigerians, Indians, people from Asia who would have had polio in childhood, are here now and they need some support.”

Initial recovery

The last case of polio in Ireland was recorded in 1984, but post-polio syndrome affects survivors many years after their initial recovery. Late-occurring effects include muscle and joint pain, lack of strength and increased muscle weakness, fatigue, breathing and swallowing problems, and severe intolerance to cold weather. There are an estimated 7,000 survivors of polio in Ireland today.

In the winter, they may need to turn the heat on even during the night, because their intolerance to cold is severe

Prof Hardiman said over the past 23 years around 800 patients have presented to her post-polio clinic.

The Post Polio Support Group (PPS) was founded in 1993 to provide support and services to polio survivors. It currently has 930 members with 22 social support groups throughout the country.

Emma Clarke Conway, PPS development officer said: “Somebody who may have had polio as a child may go on to recover and to live fairly normal lives. Then later on, if PPS kicks in, they may find themselves needing callipers, walking sticks or even wheelchairs.

Heating grant

“We would provide them sometimes with physiotherapy or occupational therapy. We also provide a heating grant to some who are financially vulnerable because their heating bills can be extremely high. In the winter, they may need to turn the heat on even during the night, because their intolerance to cold is severe.”

PPS also runs support groups for polio survivors in Dublin, Naas, Wexford, Sligo and Cork.

Polio no longer exists naturally in Ireland largely due to immunisation. Children are vaccinated against the disease as part of the six-in-one vaccine at two, four and six months of age. Booster doses are given at four to five years of age.

Worldwide, the number of cases has reduced dramatically due to vaccination, but the disease remains a major health challenge in Nigeria, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.