Polio: take my breath a-a-ah-hah-ah-way

Breathing. Think about it for a second. You breathe in, you breathe out. No effort. Magical.

You breathe in: to get oxygen in your body and to your brain and muscle tissues, you breathe out; to remove the carbondioxide out of your body. You breathe in, … Breathing is actually for so much more, for speaking, laughing, singing. Without breathing this would all be impossible. Quite extraordinary that you go through life without realizing how amazing this actually is. The only time when you realize it is when it’s not easy. When you get a cold and your nose is blocked. And of course, there are more devastating diseases that turn off the effortlessness of breathing and will challenge you to find new ways of surviving. Let’s go deeper into one of them.  But before I forget: you breathe out.

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, they can sing right? Donald Sutherland, what a President in the Hunger Games huh? And maybe a real one, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (I say maybe because we’re actually not so sure we agree with the medics from that time). Yes, they all had polio. Challenging them, and their breathing, in ways you can’t imagine.

Poop in your mouth

Polio is a viral infection caused by the poliovirus and can be spread from person to person and fecal-orally. Or in plain English: poop in your mouth. Sounds disgusting? It doesn’t mean you have to literally eat poop. If you don’t wash your hands after you did your number two and subsequently eat a cookie, well done, you completed the fecal-oral route. The cookie is just an example, although we all like those chocolate ones with bigger chunks in them or the one with the pink glazing, instead of cookie you should read: contaminated food or water.

Odin: Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy shall posses the power of thor(ax)

About 1% of polio infections result in severe muscle weakness and the inability to move. This weakness can be quite sudden, occurring over just a matter of hours to days. The muscle weakness usually starts with the legs and could move up to unable the diaphragm. Your diaphragm is a big muscle that separates your thorax from your abdomen. If you breathe in you can either expand your thorax or expand your abdomen (try both of them for a while, I know you want to). Your diaphragm is part of that choice. Without your diaphragm, breathing will be challenging. You will have a high risk of dying. It may even explain the last look of Donald Sutherland in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, staring with mouth and eyes fully open.

But it all fairness, it’s ‘only’ the 1%. Most people don’t get the muscle weakness and actually recover fully. Nothing wrong with a bit of drama, ain’t it. I know you want to read about tragedies, deaths and deformities. You are disgu… great, just keep breathing, here we go.

Iron (lung) Man

The most common thing people think about when talking about polio is the iron lung. This is a machine designed to create differences in pressure and thus expanding your thorax, allowing you to breathe. Before mechanical ventilation, this was a great way to keep patients alive if they suffered from any cause of muscle weakness. If you want to see the impact of polio muscle weakness and the iron lung, I can definitely recommend the movie “The sessions”. It’s about sex so that might trigger you to actually go watch it. Oh, and it was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe.

“Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone”

We live in a great world – wars, strange presidents and climate change aside. We live in a world where we can actually prevent diseases like polio. Even the small chance of paralyzes from this devastating disease is flushed away with simple, yet effective, vaccination!

Be grateful that you – yeah you – carelessly decide not to wash your hands – you know who you are – after doing your number two – you must love to eat …, never mind. That we can choose to take a risk for abdominal discomfort by eating on the streets in a developing country (always the best place to eat, honestly). Trust me, without vaccinations, you would think twice. Cause you just might have risked your ability to breathe!

It’s still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan and with the ongoing war in Syria, their immunization practices have changed. Luckily in all these countries, the need for vaccination is on everyone’s agenda and still the number of cases is declining. Maybe eventually we can live in a world where Polio is, just like smallpox, a thing of the past.

See, I told you how much you should appreciate your ability to breathe. Now for all those children, mothers, fathers, babies, brothers and sisters that can’t breathe as easily as you can, let’s just focus for one minute. You breathe in, you breathe out. You breathe in, you breathe out. You breathe in, …… There, I got you meditating, I gave you knowledge and you are appreciating what your body can do. You breathe out.





Obesity as an infectious disease

Obesity is contagious. Not in the historical sense of the word, but it spreads in the same pattern. It spreads from mother and father to child, it spreads amongst co-workers (your salad looks less yummy when you compare it to the fries and beef of your colleague), it spreads in communities. The only way to tackle a contagious disease is to follow the steps.

Step 1 Gather information on the disease and how it spreads.

Your weight is depending on two things: 1. Your diet and 2. The amount of exercise. This is a balance. If I take my bike to the clinic (one hour cycling in the hills, feels like I’m a pro in the tour the France), I crave and eat more then on other days. This is healthy. If I didn’t eat more I would be blown away by the wind. But let’s take a look at these two things.


“Healthy choices make for healthy people” Pfffffff, I really hate that quote.

People don’t think when they’re hungry. We’ve all had that moment when we’re hungry when we go shopping and end up with a variety of unhealthy snacks. When hungry you crave fatty, sugary, fast snacks. And the shops know this. They install all unhealthy fast snacks in your face, tempting you to take it. It’s like they’re calling out to you “eat me”. Now you have to be strong to resist temptation. Marketing is betting on you to make your impulse buy. It’s depending on you to make your unhealthy choice and get fatter and fatter every day. They make money of your future obesity!

Also, people don’t know just what they’re eating and, more importantly, drinking. All soda, energy drinks, iced coffee and alcoholic beverages contain huge amounts of sugar. I remember reading about a trial in the USA where the school children were “forced” to drink water and a dad commented “my son is not a dog, he doesn’t like water”. I laughed about it but actually it’s pretty sad. Children are exposed to all sugary drinks and snacks from an early age. Yes they prefer these over water or non-sugar milk (I call this “milk”), but they’re children. My daughters also prefer to watch Mary Poppins all day but as soon as I tell them to go play outside they forget about ms Poppins and run around. Should you always give in to what your child wants? NO! I even remember my own father, when I told them my 2 year old daughter wanted some water, saying: let’s add some flavor to the water. He added lemonade. He meant this in a nice way but my daughter didn’t even know there was the option of “flavored water”, so why introduce this?


This is a challenge. I know. You have to exercise every day for 30 minutes, blah blah blah. I don’t like running ( I know, big shock for all you runners high fanatics), now that the rainy season is heavily upon me I can’t take my bike and my Nike training app is nice for twice a week but I have skipped plenty of weeks in my life… So yes, I get that exercising is difficult. However, I see people taking the escalator to ascent one floor. Or two floors. I try to tell myself that these people are probably suffering from some health problem that withholds them from taking the stairs, but this can’t be true for all those people can it? I see people taking their car to bring their children to school 200 meters from where they live. Why not take a bike? Even in rain you can put a coat on them. My kids love that. This sets an example for them as well.

The lives that most people appear to be living is this:

Wake up and eat breakfast, get in car to go to work, take escalator to second floor, sit at desk to work, have 3 cups of coffee with sugar, maybe a cookie, have lunch (you’re hungry and “deserve” some snacks), sit at desk, have some soda, another mid-day snack, take escalator down two floors, get in car, get home, have diner, drink soda/wine/beer during diner, watch tv while sitting on couch, eat crisps or chocolate with soda/beer/wine, sleep.

Not a lot of exercise…

I think we have a pretty clear idea of the why and how of obesity, let’s continue to the next step.

Step 2: contain the spread

In this step we have to take care of the patients we have, which are many. We also have to try to not get more people infected. How can we do this? We have multiple options:

  1. Get the politics to care and put a stop on the energy drinks for kids
  2. Get the schools to care and stop selling sugary drinks and snacks to children at school
  3. Get the hospitals to care and improve the food in hospitals (I had the pleasure of being in the hospital for some days and the amount of vegetables was shockingly low). In the USA there are actually fast food restaurants inside the hospitals. Yes really.
  4. Get the shops to care and stop tempting people to make unhealthy choices
  5. Get companies to care and encourage stair walking
  6. Get you to care.

Actually, the only thing that you can do is option 6. You are in control. Know what you eat and drink and fix it. Make a shopping list and stick to it. Don’t get into the temptation that the marketing people in their offices have thought about. Be unpredictable to them! Replace the car with bike and escalator with stairs, then you already did some exercise. If you take a walk during your mid day break instead of a snack, you’re amazing. Take responsibility of your life. You are not just you, you are part of a family, a workplace, a community.

Step 3: keep it safe

Once you get into the groove of a healthier lifestyle I promise it’s not difficult to maintain this. Eat regular with vegetables, eat fruits, do some form of (small) exercise and stop drinking sugar and alcohol in the amount you are doing right now. You will see that you can hold on to this.

In the meantime we can hope for politics, schools, hospitals, shops and companies to start caring.

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