When I was a lad growing up in the black-and-white years of the late Fifties, there was a lad who lived in the next neighbourhood, the age as me. Me and my pals were in awe of Eddie, for he was famous. He had his picture on a small cardboard box that sat beside the till in Mr McCabe’s shop which sold everything from gob-stoppers to loose biscuits.
We called Eddie a ‘spastic’, for his photo on that box showed him in calipers and on crutches, his legs bent and twisted, his face etched in a grimace of constant discomfort. Eddie had polio, and the cardboard box was for people to drop their spare pennies in after they had settled their weekly ‘tick’ account with Old Man McCabe.
Polio is an infectious disease caused by a virus. It can strike at any age, but back then affected mainly children under the age of three (more than 50% of cases). The disease causes paralysis, almost always irreversible. My hero Eddie was one of the lucky kids, for polio, in the most severe cases, led to death by asphyxiation. It was a very common disease in Ireland in the 1950s.
Poliomyelitis, to give it its full name, first became a notifiable disease in Ireland in 1941. The first epidemic occurred in 1942 and continued into the following year. It had a fatality rate of 27.3%. The incidence of the disease fluctuated during the following years, with epidemic waves in 1947, 1950 and 1953, the year Eddie was born.
The polio outbreak was not significant when it comes to the current virus, but I do recall it as a worrying decade, full of conversational fervour in hushed tones and my poor Mother worried sick that me being pally with the bold Eddie — he was bold ‘cos he was brave to my young self; despite his predicament, always up for devilment — would see me end up with the dreaded disease.
But here’s another thing…
In Copenhagen in Denmark, another world altogether to us Irish back then, the number of hospital admissions was more than the staff had ever seen. And people kept coming, dozens each day. They were dying of respiratory failure. Doctors and nurses stood by, unable to help.
The polio epidemic of August 1952 at Blegdam Hospital in Copenhagen was a little-known event but it marked the start of intensive-care medicine as we know it today and the use of mechanical ventilation outside the operating theatre — the very care at the heart of abating the Covid-19 crisis.
In the Fifties of my youth, the ‘iron lung’ was the main way to treat the paralysis that stopped some people from breathing, not dissimilar from how the coronavirus affects its victims’ breathing.
Copenhagen was the epicentre of one of the worst polio epidemics. The hospital admitted 50 infected people daily, and each day, six to 12 of them developed respiratory failure. The whole city had just one iron lung. In the first few weeks of the epidemic, 87% of those with polio, in which the virus attacks the brainstem or nerves that control breathing, died. Half of the dead were children.
Desperate for a solution, the chief physician of Blegdam called a meeting. At that meeting, one Bjørn Ibsen, an anaesthetist, had a radical idea, an idea that was to change the course of modern medicine.
The ‘iron lung’ in use back then used negative pressure. It created a vacuum around the body, forcing the ribs, and the lungs, to expand; air would then rush into lungs to fill the void. Iron lungs only partially solved the paralysis problem. Many people with polio placed in one still died. Ibsen suggested the opposite approach. His idea was to blow air directly into the lungs to make them expand, and then allow the body to passively relax and exhale.
What followed was one of the most remarkable episodes in health-care history: in six-hour shifts, medical and dental students from the University of Copenhagen sat at the bedside of every person with paralysis and ventilated them by hand.
It was a minor miracle that saved many lives, and the prototype to the ventilators used today in ICUs.
Despite my mother’s fears, I never got polio. I grew up, lost touch with Eddie and would never learn how his life would pan out. Europe was only declared polio-free in 2002 after extensive vaccination programmes over many years. However, the virus is still endemic today in India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
Paul Hopkins is an Irish journalist of nearly 40 years standing, and currently freelances for, primarily, the Belfast Telegraph, The Sunday Independent, Skerries News in north Dublin and is the OpEd comment writer for the Meath Chronicle. He is also a weekly contributor to the Now.ie news sites that cover the South East of Ireland