Polio survivor Mary Lou Phillips, of Fulton, spoke twice Wednesday about the virus, along with Dr. Ted Groshong, representing Rotary International's Polio Plus program.
They spoke to the Rotary Club of Fulton's lunch group and later to an auditorium of listeners at William Woods University. Monday is World Polio Day, and the Rotary Club has been engaging in fundraising and awareness efforts during the lead-up.
Wednesday's guests — Phillips with a personal experience and Groshong with historical and scientific information — brought different perspectives.
Phillips contracted paralytic poliomyelitis in the summer of 1945. She was 4 years old. She doesn't remember all the details, but the ones she does are traumatic.
"Some of them are hard to talk about," she said.
After several days of being miserable and sick, she felt a little better and went into the backyard to play. Then she collapsed.
"My parents took me to Dr. Brown," Phillips said. "I remember him pounding on my knees with a rubber hammer, to check my reflexes, I guess."
For six weeks, she was quarantined in a Columbia hospital, where she felt very alone. "I was considered contagious, so I only saw doctors and nurses," she said.
Eventually her parents could visit.
"My mother said she could count the fence posts between here and Columbia, they made so many trips," Phillips said. "Columbia and back was pretty much an all-day trip."
Her parents were told not to talk about Phillips's bout of polio.
"They didn't want to cause a panic," she said.
At the age of 5, Phillips had the first of many surgeries to restore her ability to walk. She said after the 20 surgeries, she needed to stop counting them.
"The doctors were trying to attach what was left of my nerves to muscles so I could walk," she said. Even after the surgeries, she had to wear leg braces and then corrective shoes.
"My left leg and foot are smaller and shorter than the right," Phillips said. "This caused spinal stenosis." Phillips had surgery to correct her spinal stenosis in 2001. She also wears hearing aids because of nerve damage caused by the high fevers of polio's onset.
"I had my last surgery about (age) 14, and at age 15, I was released from the doctors at the university," she said. "Because my left foot and leg are smaller, it caused my spine to be crooked. I had surgery with titanium rods and screws in my back. My legs are weaker, and I get tired and I wear orthodics in my left shoe."
There are other after effects.
"My left leg is sensitive to cold, and if it's scratched, it takes longer to heal," Phillips said. There aren't any studies on what else could happen. A few doctors have brushed away her concerns, she said.
"My greatest fear is one of these days I won't be able to walk without an aid of some kind," she said. But Phillips is a fighter.
"I've been blessed," she said. "I retired in 2002 as vice president of Callaway Bank. I've never considered myself handicapped. I just determined to do what I wanted to do."
The process of eradication
Polio was eradicated in the United States in 1979 , according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it still exists elsewhere in the world.
Groshong is the retired director for pediatric nephrology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. He gave some historical background on the virus and Rotary International's efforts to eradicate it.
Polio was first described by British physician Dr. Michael Underwood in 1789, though he called it "disability of the lower extremity."
By 1909, it was understood to be a virus. In 1916, the U.S. had a large polio epidemic, with 27,000 cases. "It mostly affected poor people in the ghettos," Groshong said, explaining "the ghettos" were largely composed of German, Irish and Italian immigrants.
The year 1928 brought the development of the Drinker Respirator, an early version of the iron lungs of the 1950s.
Groshong said being in an iron lung must have been terrifying.
"It hurts so much and then you can't move," he said. "Next thing you know, you're stuck in a steel tube." New research was desperately needed. Himself a victim of polio, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged people to send dimes to the White House during his fireside chats. That effort became the March of Dimes.
"Two million, 100,000 dimes were sent to the White House," Groshong said. "The March of Dimes was the most respected charity in the U.S. at the time."
The polio outbreak of 1952 was the worst the U.S. had ever seen. That year, 58,000 people were infected and 3,400 died.
People were terrified, Groshong added.
"Kids would disappear from the classroom," he said. "They wouldn't tell you what was wrong with the child that disappeared. Sometimes they would come back, and sometimes they wouldn't."
Dr. Jonas Salk started researching a polio vaccine in 1948 and found one, funded by that first March of the Dimes.
"By 1954, people were being immunized," Groshong said, adding even today, there are no anti-viral drugs, and people have to let polio run its course.
Despite the vaccine's existence, as of 1988, a thousand children were being paralyzed by the disease around the world every single day. Groshong said the death rate was 40 percent.
In 1985, Rotary International launched the Polio Plus program. Rotarians raise funds to support polio eradication by vaccinating millions of children.
"Nurses are being shot and killed for giving the polio vaccine. They're doing the heavy lifting and risking their lives to end polio," Groshong said.
Thanks in part to Polio Plus efforts, polio is only endemic in possibly three countries today: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, which had an outbreak last month.
Groshong encouraged parents in the U.S. to continue vaccinating their children, as currently 10 percent of American children aren't being vaccinated for polio. Just one contact with the virus and a person will be — will be, not may be — infected, he added.
From noon-3 p.m. Sunday, Rotarians will be at the Fulton Walmart selling artificial crocuses to raise Polio Plus funds.