'I thought this was done'
Post-polio syndrome surfaces

By SHELLY DECKER -- Edmonton Sun

EDMONTON -- Despite a telltale limp, Bernie Hornung had put polio in his past. But the virus that caused him such pain as a child is haunting him again.

Like many polio survivors, the Edmonton man is facing debilitating problems, known as post-polio syndrome.

About six years ago the father of two began suffering fatigue and chronic pain in his hip. He's also weaker.

"Everything's harder," said Hornung, 49, who was hit with the virus at the age of one. "You can't do as much physical activity. I've stopped playing slo-pitch baseball, cut way back on golfing, gardening is getting harder to do."

Hornung had been cane-free for decades. Now he can't walk more than 15 metres without its assistance.

"I thought this was done. I had polio, it's not I have polio ... I think that's how most people feel," said the president of the Wildrose Polio Support Society. He's hoping to create awareness about the problem during Polio Awareness Week, which begins today.

Hornung suffers the most common symptoms. Other signs include sleep problems and cold intolerance.

"In the last 10 to 15 years, it has become increasingly apparent that people who had polio are developing new weaknesses, not only in the muscles affected by polio, but also in muscles that were apparently unaffected," said Edmonton's Dr. Ming Chan, a polio researcher. "These people are losing strength."

The problems intensify if left untreated, said Chan, a University of Alberta department of medicine professor.

While it's not known what triggers the emergence of the syndrome, it has a high incidence rate.

"Up to 80% of survivors will develop post-polio syndrome, that's a rough guide," said Chan, who estimated there are at least 700 polio survivors in Alberta.

Hornung's doctor immediately recognized the problem and treatment, including a moderate intensity strength training program, was started.

It was a setback since Hornung had worked so hard to overcome paralysis in his right leg and partially affected right arm. Surgery at 16 freed him from a leg brace.

"I didn't have a sweet 16 party. I had a brace burning party," recalled the public trustee, who played soccer, baseball and football as a youngster.

It's vital that a doctor familiar with polio assess the symptoms or people could be misdiagnosed with an ailment that mimics the syndrome, such as fibromyalgia.

Treatment includes moderate exercise, nutrition, rest breaks and lifestyle modification such as learning to pace activities. Chan is also testing medication to battle midday fatigue that can prevent people from working or driving.

Overexertion is a serious threat for post-polio syndrome sufferers, says physiotherapist Anita Clarke who works at Edmonton's Post Polio Clinic.

"It can cause muscle wasting. If survivors' muscles and nerves are overly taxed, patients may end up losing strength," said Clarke.

After a thorough patient assessment, Clarke develops an individualized, modified strength program that doesn't fatigue muscles. It's important work.

"It can make the difference between someone getting out of a chair or not, being able to climb stairs or dress or feed themselves," she said.

For the past three years Chan has been researching the impact of regular, gentle exercise. Syndrome sufferers are put on a three-month program. Motor nerve cells are counted prior to, during and after the program. He also assesses the brain functions and changes in the muscle.

"Mild to moderate intensity exercise does not do those nerve cells or the muscle any harm. In fact, people were showing improvement in their strength," he said. "However, important questions remain. How much exercise is good? How much is too much? Who is most likely to benefit? These questions need to be answered."

Polio was rampant in Canada in the late 1920s through the late '50s. Transmitted via food or water, polio affects the spinal cord and brain. People can be left paralysed or die. Polio still surfaces in 10 countries, most notably in India, Pakistan and Nigeria.

For more information on post-polio syndrome, call Chan at 780-471-8210, or contact the Wildrose Polio Support Society at 780-992-0969.

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