Research into Post-Polio syndrome and ME has made the astounding discovery that the virus that most often triggers ME is closely related to the one that causes polio.
Just a few decades ago, hospital wards were full of children in iron lungs as a result of polio. No longer. The horrific spectacle appeared to abate with the advent of vaccination, but nothing is without its price.
The public breathed a sigh of relief and even the medical profession believed, and still seems to believe, that the dreaded scourge of polio was at last being vanquished. We read predictions that it will be wiped out by the year 2000.
But a body of evidence is growing linking myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) to this terrible disease largely caused by attempts to eradicate polio. An alternative polio seems to be upon us.
The proceedings of the first international scientific conference on the Post-Polio Syndrome in the US have been collated in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. It includes 50 papers written by 118 contributors from a wide range of specialties, including clinical neurology, neuroscience, electrophysiology, brain imaging, histology, virology, immunology, epidemiology and rehabilitation.
In particular, papers by Dr Richard Bruno, assistant professor at the New Jersey Medical School's department of physical medicine and rehabilitation and director of Post-Polio Rehabilitation and Research Service at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, and four other specialists compare in graphic detail ME now often called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Post-Polio Syndrome (Dalakas, et al, ed. The Post Polio Syndrome: Advances in the Pathogenesis and Treatment, Annals, NY Academy, Sciences, 1995: 273: 1-409). Post-Polio is developing in those who had polio 25-30 years previously. Clinically, it is indistinguishable from ME.
Other researchers demonstrate that ME is just another form of polio, which has increased with the advent of polio vaccination. As one type of gut virus has been eradicated, so other forms have had the space to proliferate.
To understand the link one needs to understand the microbiological habits of both polio and other enterovirus disease that is, gut bugs.
A historical accident has led to various names being given to viruses, all of which share physical, chemical and epidemiological characteristics of what we consider the classic polio virus, which science refers to as polio viruses 1,2 and 3 (Dowsett: Journal of Hospital Infection, 1988; 11: 103-15). In 1948 a polio-like illness in New York state prompted scientists to culture the virus. But what grew looked to them at that time like a new virus.
They called it "Coxsackie" after the small town up the Hudson River where it was found. And they called the disease "Atypical Polio" because its symptoms identified it as a kind of polio, despite the virus being apparently different.
This kind of polio, "Atypical Polio", has since been renamed "ME" and even more recently, "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome". But it remains a kind of polio despite the change of name, and newer technology has shown up the generic similarities of the most frequent agent that causes it.
These techniques place Coxsackie, the virus most often implicated in ME, in the polio family tree, along with so-called Echo viruses. Coxsackie has been further divided into Coxsackie type A (with 24 viruses) and Coxsackie type B (six viruses). There are 34 Echo viruses. In total, there are at least 72 enteroviruses in all, with new ones still being discovered.