Sex and drugs and rock and roll (part 1)

This week’s nationwide cinema release of the Ian Dury biopic Sex and drugs and rock and roll is not actually about polio but the film reveals the initial and lasting effects of polio through the story of one very particular young boy. Dury caught polio at a swimming pool in 1949 at the age of 7, acquiring disabling and disfiguring weakness in his left arm and leg that affected him for the rest of his life.

The spectres of cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and chronic disease may haunt us nowadays but infection, vanquished in many forms, is still a current danger. The threat of pandemic swine flu, or any other new pandemic ‘flu that will come along, HIV-AIDS, hepatitis, TB, superbug MRSA and measles are current infection risks that still face us in the UK.

The good news is that polio is now very much diminished by medical research and application of it, through an effective programme of immunisation.   

What is polio? Polio is a viral infection caused by the poliovirus. It is passed on through the faecal-oral route commonly water contaminated with faeces. It can be mild, with flu like symptoms but it can cause serious neurological problems as the virus delivers its worst effects by attacking nerves. The virus could affect the nerve supply of respiratory muscles, resulting in breathing problems and death but the most common result was the large number of disabled children outbreaks left in their wake. Polio was also referred to as ‘infantile paralysis’ but as adults could also contract polio this name eventually fell out of favour.  
 
When were the last major epidemics of polio in the UK? Ian Dury was affected in the in the last epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s. By the end of the 1950s two effective vaccines had been introduced and used – the Salk and the Sabin – the latter one popular with children as it was given on a sugar lump and taken orally. The other was a jab. Cases of acute poliomyelitis are now almost unknown in the UK with no recorded cases in published Health Protection Agency data since 1998, when there were two.  
 
Where is polio now? Since 1988 the World Health Organisation has been working on a worldwide programme to eradicate polio which has been largely successful, though vaccination levels have to be maintained. Only four countries are now considered to be at risk of outbreaks - India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.