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Poliomyelitis or polio is a highly infectious disease caused by the poliovirus that affects children under five. The disease is asymptomatic in most cases, but when symptoms do appear they can lead to severe lifelong disabilities or even death. Today outbreaks are only seen in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Poliomyelitis shook the youth population of Spain between 1956 and 1963. It caused serious physical disabilities in 12,000 children and approximately 2,000 deaths.

«In Spain, polio caused serious physical disabilities in 12,000 children between 1956 and 1963.»

 

poliomyelitis and post polio syndrome in spain

 

The most painful thing is that it could all have been avoided. At that time, two vaccines had already been discovered that were effective at eradicating the virus: the Salk injectable vaccine and the Sabin oral vaccine. However authorities under Franco didn't roll out a free countrywide vaccination programme, so only those close to the regime or with the necessary financial resources could benefit from them. Today polio survivors continue to fight for recognition of this negligence under the dictatorship and condemn the injustice of a democracy that hasn't recognised their suffering.

«Two polio vaccines were available, but the Franco regime didn't do any sort of vaccination campaign.»

 

poliomyelitis and post polio syndrome in spain

 

«The only effective way to control the disease is through vaccination.»

The drama of these children, now grown adults, doesn't end there. They now have to deal with post-polio syndrome (PPS), a different disease that affects those who suffered from polio in childhood. The motor neurons that were originally affected age prematurely leading to progressive failure and symptoms like fatigue, muscle atrophy and pain. The WHO didn't recognise this syndrome as a disease until 2010, so no research has been done to develop a drug to alleviate the symptoms and doctors generally know little about it. The centres of reference in Spain for this illness are hospital Vall d'Hebron and Institut Guttmann, both in Catalonia.

«The WHO didn't recognise post-polio syndrome as a disease until 2010.»

Ana Liébanas got polio in 1960, when she was three years old. Even though her right leg was severely affected, she has been able to lead a normal life. "A few years ago I started feeling unstable on my good leg, I started using crutches, getting fatigue and muscle pain that kept me from sleeping, I developed joint deformities..." Ana now uses a wheelchair to get around. "I've spent my life learning to walk again and again".

«"I've spent my life learning to walk again and again."»

 

poliomyelitis and post polio syndrome in spain

 

When she discovered that PPS exists, she joined the Polio y PostPolio de Cataluña association and started a blog, Postpolio desde Tarragona. "The fight to eradicate polio made society forget about those who had suffered. Lack of understanding of this disease has meant our disabilities have been largely overlooked." The future of those affected is unclear, which is why they are asking institutions to help protect them in the last years of their lives.

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