Dangers of Polio explained as Paul Alexander, 78, dies after 70 years in ‘iron lung’

By Staff

The longest living polio survivor with an iron lung, Paul Alexander, has died aged 78. Paul, also known as ‘Polio Paul’, contracted polio back in the summer of 1952 at the age of six.

He was left paralysed from the neck down and was being treated with a large metal cylinder, where he spent the rest of his life.

During his life, Paul studied to become a lawyer, was recognised by Guinness World Records as the person who has spent the longest amount of time living in an iron lung and became a published author. He self-published his memoir, Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung, back in 2020.

In 1988, the World Health Assembly set out to eradicate the disease, launching the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Since then, over 99 per cent of wild poliovirus cases have deceased, from an estimated 350,000 cases in more than 125 countries to just six reported cases in 2021.

According to the World Health Organisation, of the three strains of wild poliovirus (type 1, type 2 and type 3), wild poliovirus type 2 was eradicated in 1999 and wild poliovirus type 3 was eradicated in 2020. As of 2022, endemic wild poliovirus type 1 remains in two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There have been no confirmed cases of paralysis due to polio caught in the UK since 1984, according to the NHS. There is no cure, with one in 100 people with poliovirus experiencing temporary or permanent paralysis.

The chance of getting ill from polio is rare, but is higher if you are not fully vaccinated against the disease. If you’re travelling abroad, it’s mindful to get advice from a travel clinic, GP, nurse or pharmacist before you go. In some cases you may need a polio booster vaccine before you travel.

How polio is spread

Polio is caused by a virus that can easily spread from person to person. According to the NHS, the disease usually spreads through contact with the faeces of an infected person. Cleaning your hands properly is a must to prevent polio spreading.

It can also spread through coughs or sneezes, but this is less common, or contaminated food and water. The virus then multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis.

Symptoms of polio

Polio is a highly infectious virus, with a typical incubation period between seven to ten days, but can range from four to 35, according to the WHO. Up to 90 per cent of those infected experience no or mild symptoms and the disease usually goes unrecognised.

Mild, flu-like symptoms can include:

  • a high temperature
  • extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • headaches
  • being sick (vomiting)
  • a stiff neck
  • muscle pain

These symptoms usually last between two to ten days and most recovery is complete in all cases. However, before the roll out of immunisations against the disease, some more severe cases could affect the brain and nerves.

In these cases, people experienced muscle weakness and paralysis. If the paralysis affects the muscles used for breathing, it can be life threatening, which is why ‘iron lungs’ were built to help with polio symptoms.

Who was Paul Alexander?

Christopher Ulmer, organiser of Paul’s GoFundMe page, announced the news this week. In a statement he said: “Paul Alexander, “The Man in the Iron Lung”, passed away yesterday. After surviving polio as a child, he lived over 70 years inside of an iron lung.

“In this time Paul went to college, became a lawyer, and a published author. His story travelled wide and far, positively influencing people around the world. Paul was an incredible role model that will continue to be remembered.

“I met and interviewed Paul in 2022. Our community raised a large amount of money for him. I just got off the phone with Philip, Pauls’ brother, who wants to communicate the following message.

“‘I am so gratitude to everybody who donated to my brother’s fundraiser. It allowed him to live his last few years stress-free. It will also pay for his funeral during this difficult time. It is absolutely incredible to read all the comments and know that so many people were inspired by Paul. I am just so grateful.’

“Paul, you will be missed but always remembered. Thanks for sharing your story with us.”

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