What is polio and what happened the last time there was an epidemic in the UK?

·2-min read
Polio vaccine (Alamy/PA)
Polio vaccine (Alamy/PA)

Despite eradication in recent years, the polio virus is a deadly illness which wreaked havoc in the UK in the 1950s.

Scientists have now discovered polio in several sewage samples collected from the London Beckton Sewage Treatment Works between February and May of this year.

The sewage works serve around four million people in north and east London.

So far no cases of polio paralysis have been detected, but what is the disease? And what happened last time there was a polio epidemic in the UK?

  • High temperature

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Vomiting

  • Neck stiffness

  • Muscle pain

– What is polio?

Polio is a life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus.

Symptoms of polio include a high temperature, extreme fatigue, headaches, vomiting, neck stiffness and muscle pain.

In extreme cases polio can cause paralysis, usually in the legs, although movement typically comes back within a few weeks or months.

However, it can be life-threatening if it paralyses the muscles needed for breathing.

It mainly affects children under the age of five, although it can also impact unvaccinated adults.

It has caused death or life-long paralysis in the past.

– Where is polio found?

Polio is extremely rare now due to the success of the polio vaccine.

It is primarily found in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

– How does polio spread?

Polio spreads through bodily fluids. An infected person can spread it by coughing or sneezing. People can also catch it by coming into contact with the faeces of an infected person.

– When were the last polio epidemics in the UK?

During the early 1950s the UK was rocked by a series of polio epidemics, with as many as 8,000 people suffering paralytic poliomyelitis.

The epidemics ended with the introduction of the oral polio vaccine in 1962.

– What is an iron lung?

An iron lung is a respirator which stimulates breathing by enclosing a person’s body and varying the air pressure inside.

They are typically considered obsolete due to the invention of new breathing techniques and the eradication of polio.

– Who is the man in the iron lung?

Paul Alexander contracted polio at the age of six in Texas in 1952.

He was kept alive with the use of an iron lung.

Mr Alexander is still alive today at the age of 76 after living in an iron lung for the past 70 years.