Every summer from 1916 to the 1950s, epidemics of the polio virus infected thousands of people in the U.S. Some died at the time of the infection, some were permanently paralyzed, and a much larger number recovered but died prematurely many years later from “post-polio syndrome” in which the muscles affected by the original polio infection become weak again, and they often died of heart failure. You don’t see polio much in North America today because of the work on polio vaccines by Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, and Joseph Melnick. Since the late 1950s, children in the U.S. have been vaccinated against polio as a routine part of their health care.
You can expect this current COVID-19 pandemic to continue until at least 40 percent of the U.S. population is immunized with a vaccine, and a smaller percentage becomes immune after having COVID-19. The reason this coronavirus is killing so many people is because it had never infected humans until 2019. Virtually 100 percent of the human population will become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 when they are exposed. To stop the pandemic, we need “herd immunity” where there are enough people who are protected by their own immunity that the virus is no longer circulating everywhere you go. That can only be accomplished with a vaccine, because it would take many years for enough people to suffer COVID-19 to reach a state of herd immunity. The polio virus devastated the U.S. for more than 40 years and still was not extinguished until vaccines became widely available. We should have vaccines by January 2021, but the early distribution will go mostly to health care workers. The general population will probably be able to receive the vaccine by March or April of 2021. Even if you think that you do not need the vaccine, I believe that you should get one as a gesture of good will towards your neighbors to help protect all of us from becoming infected.
Many years after a person appears to have recovered from polio, and their paralyzed muscles have been moving again, polio survivors can start to lose muscle function and become progressively weaker to the point where they can return to the level of disability they had with polio many years earlier. All people lose nerves with aging, and like everyone else, people who have recovered from polio will lose nerves as they age. However, when they lose a single nerve, they also lose many muscle fibers because their nerves innervate many “recovered” muscle fibers. Post-polio syndrome means that most people who have recovered from polio become weaker and weaker as they age, often becoming completely disabled.
Will there be a Post-COVID-19 Syndrome? Because COVID-19 is such a new disease, we do not yet know whether there will be long-term consequences in people who have recovered from this virus. The CDC notes that COVID-19 symptoms can sometimes persist for months, and the virus can damage the lungs, heart and brain, which increases the risk of long-term health problems (CDC website, September 16, 2020). Heart damage may also explain some frequently reported long-term symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and heart palpitations.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com.