“Have you ever had Polio?” The key question to ask patients

400,000+ Australians have had Polio, however, the public and medical professionals often think of it as a disease of the past which could be leading to misdiagnosis.

Decades after the poliomyelitis epidemics in Australia, the aftermath of the disease is now becoming evident in our ageing ‘polio population’. An estimated 400,000 people may be experiencing the Late Effects of Polio (LEoP) or Post-Polio Syndrome (PPS). A younger population who have migrated to Australia also require management and support.

For older patients presenting in clinics with increasing muscle weakness, increasing or new pain or multifactorial fatigue and decline, Polio SA president Brett Howard advises health professionals to ask, ‘Have you ever had polio?’.

“It is common that those who had Polio when they were younger, like myself, have fought hard to overcome Polio and simply aren’t aware of the late effects of the disease. So, when weakness and pain return, it can be hard to face”, says Howard.

PPS tends to be more noticeable as people begin to age, says Dr Nigel Quadros, Senior Consultant, Rehabilitation Medicine at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and a specialist in PPS.

“Having polio in the past may contribute significantly to multifactorial decline and fatigue that often presents among ageing patient populations. People who contracted Polio in Australia are now in their 60s at the youngest – and will hopefully enjoy a long life thanks to modern medicine. So they are going to have more problems related to the effects of Polio.”

Where PPS is suspected, a proper medical evaluation to identify and treat reversible causes of fatigue and weakness, such as diabetes, or thyroid disease is advised.

There are minimal studies showing any benefit of medications to treat fatigue and weakness in postpolio patients. The main advice is lifestyle modification – healthy diet, losing weight, and energy conservation. Adapting clinical practices to the suit post-polio body is essential to prolong daily functional ability.

“Doing tasks you are able to do, knowing your limits and having frequent breaks is really important for polio survivors because they were real go-getters – they had to prove as youngsters that they could keep up and to find that suddenly they can’t anymore can be difficult”, says Dr Quadros.

Allied and other Health Professionals supporting patients who have ever had polio can visit PolioSA.org.au/health-professionals to access clinical practice guidelines, and register for Polio Australia’s upcoming Clinical Practice Workshops.

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