Virus scare familiar to those who remember polio

By Linda Hersey Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND (May 7): When Penny Pachios Carson grew up in Cape Elizabeth, families avoided crowds because they feared catching polio. [0]

So Carson played at the beach instead. No one knew at the time that sewage discharged from town pipes into the bay carried the polio virus.

Three Cape Elizabeth children fell ill with polio in the summer of 1955. Carson was one of the victims.

“People did not realize the virus was transmitted by fecal matter in contaminated water. They were worried about movie theaters and crowded areas,” she said.

Carson said the scare today over the swine flu — which closed a school in Kennebunk and a day care in Arundel —  is reminiscent of the fear over polio but also quite different.

“The flu is an acute thing happening now. But every summer season, in every year of my life, people would be restricting children’s activities because of polio,” recalls Carson, whose husband, Bob, is a longtime Rotary member.

Carson, 69, sat in the audience of a recent South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Rotary meeting that welcomed an African attorney who builds wheelchairs for polio survivors in Nigeria, where the virus is still rampant.

Polio has been wiped out in the United States and most of the world. But the virus exacts a high toll in four countries: Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

Carson and Ann Lee Hussey, a polio survivor from South Berwick, listened attentively as Ayuba Gufwan discussed the need for bicycle wheelchairs in Nigeria, where basic medical equipment and care often is unavailable.

Hussey is a member of the Casco Bay Sunrise Rotary Club, and helped sponsor Gufwan’s first trip to the United States. Gufwan contracted polio at age 4, but did not get a wheelchair until he was 18. Today he oversees a workshop that makes and donates bicycle wheelchairs to young survivors.

“Ayuba is a very determined young man in a country so poor and where survivors are not assisted,” said Hussey, who caught polio in 1955, when a polio epidemic swept across the East Coast.

Hussey has made 15 global trips as a Rotary volunteer to promote polio vaccinations in Third World countries.

“I don’t have words to describe how it feels to be in America,” Gufwan said, speaking at the John McKernan Center at Southern Maine Community College. “It looks and feels like heaven.”

Indeed, the bountiful dinner and well-dressed club members were in contrast to the photos of destitution and suffering among Nigerian polio survivors that flashed across a movie screen as Gufwan spoke.

Many villagers do not get their children immunized despite a major effort by Rotary International to provide the polio vaccine to Third World countries.

Some Nigerians mistrust foreigners who bring the vaccinations. They shun villagers afflicted by the disease.

Rotary International established a goal in 1985 to eradicate the polio virus worldwide and sends volunteers like Hussey to help administer vaccines and raise awareness.

The international service organization has raised $650 million and helped sponsor vaccines for 2 billion children globally, with assistance from the World Health Organization.

Rotary International is credited with helping reduce the number of nations where the wild polio virus exists from 125 to just the four.

Gufwan said that while vaccines offer the best hope for the future, there are thousands of polio victims who need basic equipment to lead productive lives.

Both Carson and Hussey recalled that in 1955, Americans did not not know a lot about the virus. But Carson said there was “widespread fear” about the disease, which can weaken and paralyze muscles.

Polio most often spreads through contact with fecal matter. Less frequently, polio is spread through contact with saliva

“There was not too much understanding of transmission,” Carson explained. “Our parents lived in fear that children would get the disease. We could not go to the movies or places where there would be crowds.

“We would go swim at a local beach. There were sewer pipes that went straight across the beach and into the water,†said Carson. “You could see waste matter floating in the swimming area. The water was contaminated.”

Polio weakened the muscles in her torso and the small motor muscles in her hands. Carson’s legs were not impacted. She now suffers from post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects muscles originally affected by the polio virus.

Carson still recalls the blinding headache that was the first sign she had contracted polio. After a doctor came to the family’s home in the Oakhurst neighborhood, she was sent to Maine Medical Center and quarantined on a ward for polio patients.

Three times a day, nurses placed wet wool blankets that had been warmed on weakened parts of a patient’s body. “They thought the moist heat would help,” she said.

Hussey noted that 1955 was the last of the polio epidemics on the East Coast before the Salk vaccine became widely available the same year.

Hussey had to wear leg braces for many years after recovering from the virus. Her right leg is smaller than her left and she has had several corrective surgeries.

Hussey marvels that vaccines have been so effective that many adults today have scant knowledge of polio or its crippling effects.

“People under 40 have no comprehension about what it is,” she said. “But they should. Our role in the Rotary is to eradicate the disease but also bring awareness to people that vaccinations are necessary, so that the virus will not return.”

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