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Sunday, December 1, 2013

60 years in an iron lung: US polio survivor worries about new global threat

Via NBC: Martha Ann Lillard, now 65, has spent most of the past six decades inside an 800-pound machine that helps her breathe. 

“Scenarios for polio being reintroduced into the U.S. are easy to image and the disease could get a foothold if we don’t maintain high vaccination rates,” says Dr. Greg Wallace, a team leader for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he heads the measles, mumps, rubella and polio epidemiology branch.

“Syria is a good example,” he adds. “They didn’t have any cases. Then they stopped vaccinating for two or three or four years and what do you have?”

What you have, according to the World Health Organization, is more than a dozen children permanently paralyzed in Syria, where conflict and a humanitarian crisis have interrupted inoculation efforts that provide a lifetime of protection with just a few doses of vaccine.

Infectious disease experts in Germany this month warned that Syria’s outbreak could endanger Europe as tens of hundreds of refugees flee the war-torn country and settle in places that have been polio-free for decades.

That idea alarms Lillard, who is one of an estimated six to eight polio survivors in the U.S. still using iron lungs, according to Joan Headley, executive director of Post-Polio Health International, an advocacy group.

Their numbers have dwindled steadily since 1959, when more than 1,200 people in the U.S. relied on the machines that use negative air pressure to passively move air in and out of lungs weakened or paralyzed by the virus.

She has spent most of her life inside one of several long metal cylinders in which she’s enclosed with an airtight seal, with only her neck and head sticking out of a foam collar. She has switches inside —along with a goose down comforter and nice sheets — to allow her to roll a tray-like cot in and out.

Lillard owns her iron lung, which was built in the 1940s and runs on a fan belt motor that friends help patch together with car parts when it breaks.

“It feels wonderful, actually, if you’re not breathing well,” says Lillard. “When I was first put into it, it was such a relief. It makes all the difference when you’re not breathing.”

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