What is Infantile Paralysis?

wiseGEEK Writer

Infantile paralysis is an alternate name for the condition better known as polio or poliomyelitis. This is an extremely serious illness that is all but eradicated in most parts of the world, due to steady vaccination efforts. There are a few places where polio still exists in wild form, but with vaccination, most people today won’t ever develop infant paralysis. Concern does exist that downward trends in vaccination rates might bring this disease back, and the consequences of a return of this illness could be challenging, since some children and adults who develop this condition suffer lifelong effects from getting it.

Nonparalytic forms of polio may cause fever, pain, and muscle aches.
Nonparalytic forms of polio may cause fever, pain, and muscle aches.

There are several classifications of polio, depending upon how the disease develops. Many people get only nonparalytic forms. For up to ten days after exposure they’ll be sick with symptoms such as fever, muscles aches and pain, severe headache, meningitis, vomiting, sore throat, and spasms of the muscles. Not all symptoms are present in all cases, and some people can get sick and be over symptoms so quickly they never know they had infantile paralysis.

Infantile paralysis, or polio, is usually prevented by vaccination during childhood.
Infantile paralysis, or polio, is usually prevented by vaccination during childhood.

Conversely, the disease may worsen and develop what is called paralytic polio. This may include the symptoms previously listed, and more serious ones can begin to develop. Muscle spasms may become extremely severe, and people may experience difficult with limb control, usually on one side of the body more than the other. When tested by a doctor, normal reflexes are typically absent.

During the height of the polio scare, thousands of children with infantile paralysis relied on iron lungs to breathe.
During the height of the polio scare, thousands of children with infantile paralysis relied on iron lungs to breathe.

When people develop infantile paralysis that becomes paralytic polio, the consequences can be extremely serious. The disease is potentially disabling for life and can cause changes in the way the body develops, deformation of the body, and lasting inability to fully use some parts of the body. A child who has infantile paralysis of this type can face years of surgeries, physical therapies and other interventions without recovering full function. While many people clearly have suffered from polio and still go on to live full and rich lives like the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, many others are not as lucky. Additionally, while some survive polio to face a lifetime of physical hardship, others simply do not survive it.

Symptoms of polio may include severe headaches.
Symptoms of polio may include severe headaches.

The best defense against infantile paralysis is vaccination. Children receive four shots of inactive poliovirus in childhood. Adults might require a booster if they plan to visit an area where the virus can still be contracted live. Some doctors also recommend boosters with live infantile paralysis virus, as opposed to inactivated, if people will be somewhere where the disease is still wild. This protection means many countries have almost totally eradicated infantile paralysis thanks to the work of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, who developed two successful vaccines for the illness.

Some doctors may recommend boosters with live infantile paralysis virus to patients who are traveling to places where the virus can still be contracted live.
Some doctors may recommend boosters with live infantile paralysis virus to patients who are traveling to places where the virus can still be contracted live.
Symptoms of polio may include a sore throat.
Symptoms of polio may include a sore throat.

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Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

I saw some old microfilm of the newspaper in our area from 1938. Apparently, there was a large outbreak of polio -- which they called infantile paralysis -- in the are and it was amazing what was shut down. Movie theaters were closed, sporting events were canceled, and people were even advised to stay home from church! Many houses of worship canceled services for several Sundays. People were discouraged from gathering groups, all to help discourage the spread of polio. The first vaccine was still nearly 20 years away.

Apparently it worked, since no new cases were reported during the shutdown, but it seems so strange that a disease which has been so well controlled for so many years should have ravaged so many communities before the vaccine became available.

Grivusangel

Seems like I remember getting both the vaccine with a needle, and also the oral drops as a booster. One is the Salk and one is the Sabin, but I can't remember which is which.

I clearly remember getting the drops and saying, "Tastes like Captain Crunch." Heh. I must have been about five.

I was watching a movie the other day about Sister Elizabeth Kenny from Australia and all the innovations she helped to pioneer in therapies for polio victims. It was wonderfully inspiring. Such an incredible person! She defended the effectiveness of her treatments in the face of withering fire from old men who didn't believe she knew what she was talking about. But her work is the foundation of physical therapy.

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