No, ME is not polio

Picture of Dianne Odell, who lived in an iron lung for 60 years after contracting polio aged 3, but died after a power cut in 2009Yesterday I was having a discussion on Facebook with an anti-vaccinationist who referred me to various websites which outlined the various supposed conspiracies that have gone on to keep parents in the dark about the “dangers” of vaccines. I’ve written about this issue before, and I am quite sympathetic to parents who do not automatically believe what the government tells them about a vaccine being safe, and do not automatically submit their children to new vaccines such as the Cervarix and Gardasil anti-HPV vaccines, but I support the general principle of vaccination because before they existed, we were periodically subject to huge epidemics which killed large numbers of people. One of the illnesses that has been more recently nearly eradicated is polio, which until the 1950s was a major killer, and also left large numbers of people permanently disabled. In the worst cases, they had to remain on ventilators for life as their breathing muscles had been paralysed.

A favourite excuse of the anti-vaccine cabal is that polio has not been eradicated and that several illnesses that are currently known of are in fact polio by another name. This person specifically named GBS, which she said was a type of meningitis. Now, there are two illnesses called GBS; one is a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which has been mistaken for polio, and the other is Group B Streptococcus meningitis. Meningitis affects the protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord, while polio affects the peripheral nervous system. As the name “streptococcus” implies, it is carried by a bacteria, while polio was caused by one of three specific enteroviruses which were the target of the vaccine. Enteroviruses have been linked to Guillain-Barré, but so have several other types of pathogen, particularly herpes viruses (such as cytomegalovirus and Epstein-Barr).

Another so-called “polio by another name” is ME. As Elizabeth Dowsett and other ME researchers have noted, there are significant similarities between ME and polio, including the tendency for muscles to dramatically weaken with exercise, and those affected by past ME outbreaks were rarely if ever affected by subsequent polio outbreaks, but their manifestations are markedly different. You do not get polio victims lying in darkened rooms for years, or suffering extreme pain that can barely be controlled with high doses of morphine, or suffering any of the cognitive deficits that come with ME. ME sufferers rarely if ever lose the ability to breathe unaided, although they sometimes lose the ability to speak or swallow. If anyone wants to see the difference between severe ME and severe polio, they only need to compare Lynn Gilderdale or Sophia Mirza with even the most severely-affected polio survivors such as John Prestwich or Dianne Odell. The former lived extremely restricted, pain-ridden lives in dark rooms; the latter, although they were paralysed and required machines to breathe, had relatively fulfilled lives (Prestwich married, while Odell became a popular figure in her community despite her confinement, neither of which would have been possible for someone with very severe ME).

Another claim the anti-vaccination brigade like to make is that the dramatic drop in the incidence of these illnesses was related to improved sanitation, not vaccination. Although sanitation was improving and this may have reduced our exposure to certain illnesses, it did not improve drastically in 1962 which is when the polio vaccine was licensed and introduced, and when the rate of polio infections dropped off the charts. Furthermore, polio epidemics in adults and older children became a worse problem when improved sanitation meant that people were less exposed to dirt and germs as children, reducing their immunity (this was explained to me in an email by Jane Colby of the Young ME Sufferers’ Trust, who has a long-standing relationship with Dr Dowsett). So sanitation on its own does not protect us against enteroviral illness.

There are sometimes good reasons to be cautious about vaccines, but it speaks volumes that extreme anti-vaccinationists have to resort to transparent lies, claiming that two illnesses that are obviously very different are the same thing, relying on the ignorance of their intended audience, to make their point.

(Here’s an earlier article I wrote about this issue.)

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