Interviews and In the News …

Interview on YouTube – May 2014

by Nadia Giordana

Featuring Connie Anderson and second part, Kathy Hamers, author of “Four Plus Years at Gillette Hospital.


When Polio Came Home – Dec. 20, 2014

by Caryn Sullivan, columnist, St. Paul Pioneer Press

For most Americans born after 1950, polio is just one of several illnesses against which we are vaccinated. But for those born in the first half of the century, polio represented a terrifying reality that, in recent years, resurfaced in the form of Post-Polio Syndrome.

Though she did not contract it herself, her cousin’s experience gave Connie Anderson of Bloomington a heart for those who suffered from polio. The editor and writer compiled dozens of stories of patients and family members in “When Polio Came Home: How Ordinary People Overcame Extraordinary Challenges” (

Anderson shares decades-old memories about the physical and emotional pain the mysterious illness caused patients and their loved ones. She illuminates the trauma to not only the families who experienced the disease firsthand, but also to a society beleaguered by the fear and uncertainty it created.

During the epidemic, little was known about polio. It is now identified as a highly infectious viral disease that enters the body through the mouth and is transported from the intestine to the nervous system. Spinal polio, the most common form, affects the nervous system and can cause paralysis or impair mobility; bulbar polio affects one’s ability to swallow and breathe.

Worldwide, the polio threat began to subside in 1988 when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. Since then, millions of volunteers have nearly eradicated polio by immunizing more than 2.5 billion children through the joint efforts of the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, Rotary International, UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Efforts to vaccinate children in the remaining three countries identified as polio endemic — Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – are plagued by obstacles, including parents’ refusal to participate. New concerns have emerged about polio in crisis-ridden Syria, where access to children is problematic.

The gravity of the disease is well illustrated by Anderson’s stories. Though polio most often affected children under age 5, it also affected older children and adults. It could appear gradually or rapidly. Some developed severe headaches, fever, and paralysis; others had milder flu-like symptoms; still others simply collapsed.

Fearful polio was airborne, people closed windows and avoided social situations.

When parents or doctors suspected polio, children could be whisked away to one of the hospitals for “crippled children” with no preparation. When a family member was diagnosed, homes were quarantined so the patient and his family became isolated and even stigmatized. Some doctors advised expectant or new mothers to avoid their ill children.

Many patients had to undergo multiple surgeries or spend time in an “iron lung.” Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse, introduced a novel hydrotherapy treatment and founded the renowned Sister Kenny Institute at which many were treated. Patients were wrapped in strips of scalding hot wool, whose smell many recall today.

Physicians, nurses, and physical therapists rarely communicated with patients about their condition or treatment, Anderson reports. Children often were subjected to painful spinal taps — without anesthesia — with no warning about what to expect.

Contact with family varied. Some parents visited regularly; others were absent for months. It could
be weeks, months — or even years — before the patient returned home to discover older siblings had matured, younger ones had joined the clan, and friends and relatives had died.

The disease left an emotional toll. Children feared abandonment, isolation, and social interactions. Returning to school was often difficult for brace-bearing students who had to be carried on and off of school buses or up and down stairs.

Teenagers were often tolerated or shunned.

Above all, Anderson writes, patients harbored a burning desire to be normal, not crippled. Desperate to fit in with their peers, those who needed them would nevertheless hide or remove their braces and discard their crutches.

In 1952, the U.S. epidemic peaked, with nearly 58,000 reported cases of paralytic polio. Roughly 5 percent died and a third were left with mild to disabling paralysis.

In the mid-1950s conditions improved dramatically when Dr. Jonas Stalk introduced a vaccine that prevents the disease.

Many survivors have gone on to live relatively normal lives as employees, spouses, and parents. Some, like actor Robert Redford and former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, became celebrities.

For many years, post-polio survivors who had been sedentary for so long subscribed to the “use it or lose it” and “no pain no gain” philosophies, Anderson reports. Over time, though, higher activity levels were found to be more detrimental than helpful. But the alternative “preserve-to-conserve” approach was counter-intuitive for people who learned to fight for their lives at an early age.

In recent years, many survivors were shocked to begin experiencing late effects associated with Post-Polio Syndrome, such as debilitating fatigue, numbness, weakness, and achiness. Many resorted to using scooters or other devices to assist with limited mobility.

Though they had resisted the disability label in years past, survivors found it necessary to apply for disability benefits when Post-Polio Syndrome made employment prohibitive.

Administering vaccinations to children in other parts of the world can be quite challenging. According to the World Health Organization, political conflict, poor sanitation, insecurity and weak health systems stand between children and an 11-cent oral vaccine anyone can administer. To Anderson’s contributors, who know too well what the disease entails, impeding the administration of the life-saving vaccination is utterly unfathomable. The words of Adele Poindexter Evidon say it best: “I despair at parents who choose not to vaccinate their children against polio. I can’t imagine how I would feel if I could have been spared this disease — and my parents had chosen not to protect me.”


New York Times Article – May 5, 2014

Polio’s Return After Near Eradication Prompts a Global Health Warning


Minneapolis Star Tribune May 6, 2014

World Health Organization declares spread of polio an international public health emergency

MARIA CHENG, Associated Press

LONDON — For the first time ever, the World Health Organization on Monday declared the spread of polio an international public health emergency that could grow in the next few months and unravel the nearly three-decade effort to eradicate the crippling disease.

The agency described current polio outbreaks across at least 10 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East as an “extraordinary event” that required a coordinated international response. It identified Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon as having allowed the virus to spread beyond their borders, and recommended that those three governments require citizens to obtain a certificate proving they have been vaccinated for polio before traveling abroad.

“Until it is eradicated, polio will continue to spread internationally, find and paralyze susceptible kids,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, who leads WHO’s polio efforts, said during a press briefing.

Critics, however, questioned whether Monday’s announcement would make much of a difference, given the limits faced by governments confronting not only polio but armed insurrection and widespread poverty.

“What happens when you continue whipping a horse to go ever faster, no matter how rapidly he is already running?” said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who led the WHO’s initiative to get rid of smallpox, the only human disease ever to have been eradicated.

The WHO has never before issued an international alert on polio, a disease that usually strikes children under 5 and is most often spread through infected water. There is no specific cure, but several vaccines exist.

Experts are particularly concerned that polio is re-emerging in countries previously free of the disease, such as Syria, Somalia and Iraq, where civil war or unrest now complicates efforts to contain the virus. It is happening during the traditionally low season for the spread of polio, leaving experts worried that cases could spike as the weather becomes warmer and wetter in the coming months across the northern hemisp! here.

The vast majority of new cases are in Pakistan, a country which an independent monitoring board set up by the WHO has called “a powder keg that could ignite widespread polio transmission.”

Dozens of polio workers have been killed over the last two years in Pakistan, where militants accuse them of spying for the U.S. government. Those suspicions stem at least partly from the disclosure that the CIA used a Pakistani doctor to uncover Osama bin Laden’s hideout by trying to get blood samples from his family under the guise of a hepatitis vaccination program. U.S. commandos killed the al-Qaida leader in May 2011 in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad.

At the end of last month, there were 68 confirmed polio cases worldwide, compared with just 24 at the same time last year. In 2013, polio reappeared in Syria, sparking fears the civil war there could ignite a wider outbreak as refugees flee to other countries across the region. The virus has also been identified in the sewage system in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, although no cases have been spotted.

In February, the WHO found that polio had also returned to Iraq, where it spread from neighboring Syria. It is also circulating in Afghanistan (where it spread from Pakistan) and Equatorial Guinea (from neighboring Cameroon) as well as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.

Officials also worry countries torn by conflict, such as Ukraine, Sudan and the Central African Republic, are rife for polio reinfection.

Some critics say it may even be time to accept that polio may not be eradicated, since the deadline to wipe out the disease has already been missed several times. The ongoing effort costs about $1 billion a year.

“For the past two years, problems have steadily, and now rapidly mounted,” Henderson said in an email. “It is becoming apparent that there are too many problems (for the polio eradication effort) to overcome, however many resources are assigned.”

Henderson and others have suggested the extraordinary! efforts needed for polio eradication might be better spent on other health programs, including routine vaccination programs for childhood diseases. But he conceded that transitioning to a control program would be difficult. “If not eradication, how does one accomplish a ‘soft landing’ which could sustain the global program on immunization?” Henderson said.

Aylward said the WHO and its partners, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aren’t yet considering pushing back their latest deadline to eradicate polio by 2018.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said the reemergence and spread of polio out of Pakistan, Cameroon and Syria pose “a serious threat to our ability to eradicate polio.”

“Conflicts in many areas where polio is circulating are hampering efforts to vaccinate but success remains within reach,” Frieden said.

Still, the independent board monitoring the progress being made on polio has called for overhauling the program.

“Few involved in (polio eradication) can give a clear account of how decisions are made,” concluded a recent report by the group. “If a billion-dollar global business missed its major goal several times, it would be inconceivable that it would not revisit and revise its organizational and decision-making structure.”




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