On World Polio Day, children’s charity Action Medical Research shares Michael’s story and celebrates its founder Duncan Guthrie who set up the charity over 70 years ago to help eradicate polio and was instrumental in developing the first UK polio vaccines.
Michael from London contracted polio in 1955 when he was just a few months old and despite many challenges including undergoing several operations as a child, he has led a fulfilling life, playing sport to a high level. Although he describes himself as having post-polio syndrome[i] and uses a mobility scooter and wheelchair, he is still working and living life to the full.
Polio (poliomyelitis) is caused by the poliovirus, a highly contagious virus specific to humans. It usually spreads from person to person through contact with faeces often as a result of poor hand hygiene or consuming contaminated food or water. Once in the body the virus develops in the throat and intestines. The poliovirus may go on to invade the central nervous system, destroying or damaging the nerve cells that control muscles, resulting in varying degrees of weakness, then paralysis. It is extremely rare due to a worldwide vaccination programme.[ii]
Michael describes the impact that polio had on his life: “I caught polio when I was three months old. My elder siblings had been vaccinated but at the time I was too young to have it. I had a high fever that initially the doctor thought was pneumonia, but my mother noticed that I had lost the use of my right leg and it started to waste away.” Michael was initially treated at Evelina Hospital, London, but it was when he was transferred to Lewisham Hospital, London that a series of operations and treatments transformed his life. “The doctor told my father that he could make my leg grow and correct my Achilles tendon. I was eight when I had major surgery and treatment which included bone growth stimulants and bone peg implants at the top and bottom of my tibia and at the bottom of my femur. I still recall the pain, which was excruciating.”
The operations and treatment were a great success and completely corrected the deformity in Michael’s leg. “I became a proficient spin bowler and a very good goalkeeper, but my forte was gymnastics: floor work, gymnastic rings and parallel bars were my home. The body has a tendency to compensate so I developed very powerful upper body strength and my left leg was also strengthened.”
Polio can strike at any age but mainly affects children under three years old. Worldwide, one in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. There is no cure for polio once a person becomes infected and it can only be prevented by vaccination.[ii],[iii]
Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a poorly understood condition that can affect people who have had polio in the past. It occurs when symptoms including paralysis, muscle weakness and shrinking of the muscles worsen or develop many years or decades after the original polio infection.[i] It is thought to be caused as a result of a deterioration of nerve cells called motor neurons, over many years that leads to loss of muscle strength and dysfunction.[i]
The last case of polio recorded in the UK was in 1984, and the UK and Europe were declared polio free in 2003. In 2022, a vaccine-derived* poliovirus was found circulating in sewage in London, but remains extremely rare.[ii]
Since November 2022, no further vaccine-derived poliovirus’s have been detected,[iii]which suggests the spread of the virus in London has significantly reduced.Despite these findings, the risk from poliovirus remains. The World Health Organization requires evidence of 12 months of zero detections before the UK is no longer considered to be a polio ‘infected’ country.[vi]
The charity Action Medical Research was instrumental in developing the polio vaccines in the UK. The founder of the charity, Duncan Guthrie, set up the charity when his daughter contracted polio at the age of 20 months. Action Medical Research, which was formerly known as the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research, funded research to test and develop two polio vaccines for use in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s. The UK government continues to encourage the uptake of the inactivated polio vaccine.
Commenting on Action Medical Research’s work, Sarah Moss Director of Communications says: “World Polio Day and Michael’s story is a time to remember the tireless efforts by many, past and present, to help eradicate polio. At Action Medical Research, we also celebrate our founder, Duncan Guthrie, whose determination to fight polio inspires us today, as we continue to work to save and change the lives of vulnerable babies, children, and young people through vital medical research.”
In addition to its role in the introduction of the polio virus, Action Medical Research has developed an extraordinary track record in supporting some of the most significant medical breakthroughs in recent history, which have helped save thousands of children’s lives and changed many more such as ultrasound scanning in pregnancy, discovering the importance of taking folic acid and testing the rubella vaccine.
For more about Action Medical Research please visit www.action.org.uk.
*A vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV) is a strain related to the weakened live poliovirus contained in oral polio vaccine (OPV). If allowed to circulate in under- or unimmunized populations for long enough, or replicate in an immunodeficient individual, the weakened virus can revert to a form that causes illness and paralysis. While the UK stopped using OPV in 2004, several countries worldwide, continue to use OPV containing type 2 virus for outbreak control.[vii],[viii]
[i] NHS. Post polio syndrome. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/post-polio-syndrome/diagnosis/. Accessed September 2023.
[ii] World Health Organization. Poliomyelitis (polio). Available at: https://www.who.int/europe/health-topics/poliomyelitis#tab=tab_1. Accessed September 2023.
[iii] Gov.UK. Polio: guidance, vaccination, data and analysis. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/polio-guidance-data-and-analysis. Accessed September 2023.
[iv] The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. What is post-polio syndrome? Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/post-polio syndrome#:~:text=Post%2Dpolio%20syndrome%20(PPS),syndrome%20are%20caused%20by%20poliovirus. Accessed September 2023.
[v] UK Health Security Agency. Polio is spreading. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/polio-booster-campaign-resources/polio-is-spreading-text-version#polio-is-spreading-in-london-us-and-israel. Accessed September 2023.
[vi] UK Government website. Polio vaccine catch-up campaign for London as sewage surveillance findings suggest reduced transmission. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/polio-vaccine-catch-up-campaign-for-london-as-sewage-surveillance-findings-suggest-reduced-transmission. Accessed September 2023.
[vii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine-Derived Poliovirus. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/polio/hcp/vaccine-derived-poliovirus-faq.html. Accessed September 2023.
[viii] Gov.uk. Immediate actions in response to detection of a ‘circulating’ vaccine derived polio virus type 2 (VDPV2) in London sewage samples. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/polio-detection-of-vdpv2-in-london-sewage-samples/immediate-actions-in-response-to-detection-of-vaccine-derived-polio-virus-type-2-vdpv2-in-london-sewage-samples. Last accessed September 2023.