Almost his entire life: Polio patient lived in an iron lung for 72 years - now he has died

The device that has kept Paul Alexander alive since 1952 is a good two meters long and weighs around 300 kilos: a steel tube with an opening for his neck.

Almost his entire life: Polio patient lived in an iron lung for 72 years - now he has died

The device that has kept Paul Alexander alive since 1952 is a good two meters long and weighs around 300 kilos: a steel tube with an opening for his neck. According to the “Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin,” he calls the Iron Lung, built in the 1930s, “Old Lady.” The correct wording should be: called. Because Paul Alexander, the person who lived the longest with such a device, died on Monday.

At the age of six, Alexander was infected with polio - also known as infantile paralysis. That was in 1952. The disease attacks the nervous system and can lead to paralysis - until the respiratory muscles fail and the sufferer suffocates. In time, Alexander was placed in an iron lung in the hospital, which uses negative pressure to ensure that fresh air regularly flows into his lungs.

Otherwise, his arms and legs are paralyzed, but he can turn his head and look at his room through a mirror. He can't breathe on his own. If the device fails, people in it risk suffocating. Iron lungs have not been manufactured since 1970, and the last company stopped servicing them in 2005. Alexander's friends are now doing the repairs. Until a few years ago he could leave the device for hours, but recently he didn't have the strength to do so, the magazine reports.

The first polio vaccine has been available since 1955 - so it was developed after Alexander's infection. Despite his difficult living conditions, the man from Dallas, Texas, led a fulfilling life, he told SZ Magazine. He worked as a lawyer, loved, had sex, saw the sea, sang loudly at concerts and squandered his money in the casino.

The goal decided 35 years ago by the WHO together with partners to eradicate the disease, also known as poliomyelitis, has not yet been achieved, according to the Robert Koch Institute's Epidemiological Bulletin on World Polio Day 2023. In 2022 it will occur in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan There has been an increase in recorded infections with wild polioviruses (WPV). However, infections with so-called vaccine-derived polioviruses (cVDPV) have posed an even greater problem in recent years.

According to the bulletin, 880 such cases have been recorded worldwide for 2022 and 305 for the first ten months of 2023. They occur primarily in areas where a high proportion of the population is unvaccinated. “The weakened viruses in the oral vaccination can circulate undetected for a long time, change in the process and ultimately cause acute flaccid paralysis again,” says the RKI. Due to the very low number of cases associated with symptoms, around 200 additional, unrecognized infections are expected for each confirmed illness.

One of the 2022 outbreaks occurred in New York state, but appeared largely contained in 2023. After isolated pathogens were detected in the state's wastewater at the beginning of the year, none have been found for a long time, the health authorities announced last fall. The disaster that Governor Kathy Hochul had declared in 2022 had already expired in December of that year.

Alexander is probably the last person in the world who was kept alive by such a device after a polio infection. Even with the iron lung, he was able to lead a fulfilling life: "I can do anything I want," he told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin" months before his death from a corona infection. "I'm a happy man."

Sources: “Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin”, DPA, “Epidemological Bulletin 42/2023” from the RKI (as PDF).

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