Dear Dr. Donohue: In 1951, I caught polio, and it affected mostly my right leg. I didn't have it as tough as those who had to be put in an iron lung, but I had trouble walking for many years. Finally, I could get around without too much difficulty. Now I'm losing strength in my right leg, and I think my left might be slightly affected. My doctor says I have post-polio syndrome. Does that mean the virus is active again?
A: People born after 1955, the year of the polio vaccine, have no idea of the fear this illness engendered. Many of the stricken had to spend long periods in an iron lung, a cylindrical metal unit through which only their heads were visible. It made it possible for polio patients whose breathing muscles had been paralyzed to breathe. In 1952, more than 57,000 people were stricken with polio. Today, in developed countries, few cases occur, and those cases are usually in people who have come from developing countries.
The virus attacks motor nerves in the central nervous system, nerves that control muscle action. Often, the first signs of an attack are neck and back pain. Muscle weakness and paralysis follow for some.
Now, many, many decades later, some people who had polio in the distant past are finding that limbs that had regained their strength after convalescence from the original attack are becoming weak. That is post-polio syndrome. The polio virus hasn't reactivated. More likely, nerves that had taken over the work of polio-injured nerves have become exhausted and cannot continue to do double duty.
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No medicine exists for post-polio syndrome. However, its progress is usually slow.
You don't have to be inactive, but you do have to learn how to pace yourself. The doctors best qualified to teach you how to be active without further injury are physical rehabilitation doctors and neurologists.
Post-Polio Health International, an organization devoted to helping post-polio patients, can provide you with detailed information on what you can do to keep this second encounter with polio to a minimum of discomfort and disability. Its Web site is www.post-polio.org, and its phone number is (314) 534-0475.
Don't change now
Dear Dr. Donohue: Does a low-protein diet help people with Parkinson's disease? I've never heard of it, and my husband has been a Parkinson's patient for the past five years. He's getting along fairly well with the medicines he takes. His sister told me about this diet. If it really helps, I want to know. I'll do anything to help my husband.
A: Amino acids are the components of proteins. A few amino acids might block the entrance of Parkinson's drugs into the brain, where they work.
Not every Parkinson's patient needs to be on a low-protein diet. Your husband is an example of one who doesn't need it. He's doing well. There's no reason to introduce a change in his life. Should medicines not do their job, that would be the time to think of trying the diet.
Son has HIV
Dear Dr. Donohue: My son is infected with the AIDS virus. He doesn't know how he got it. He says he doesn't have AIDS, and he means it. How can that be if he's infected? He told us he was.
A: The "AIDS virus" is properly called HIV, human immunodeficiency virus. Your son does have the virus.
AIDS is the illness that comes from infection with HIV. For most infected people, it takes 10 years for the signs and symptoms of HIV infection to develop. When they do, the person then has AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
In these days of powerful drugs against HIV, given before symptoms occur, many infected people are living their entire lives without coming down with AIDS symptoms. They have the virus; they don't have AIDS. Let me also add that it can be quite difficult to take these medicines, and they have their own set of side effects.
Dr. Paul Donohue writes for North America Syndicate. Send letters to Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.