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.




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