Death of Paul Alexander: what is the “lung of steel”, which made it possible to treat polio in the mid-20th century ?

Death of Paul Alexander: what is the "lung of steel", which made it possible to treat polio in the mid-20th century ?

What is the “iron lung” that made it possible to treat polio in the mid-20th century ?

On March 11, Paul Alexander died after living for more than 70 years in what is known as a “lung of steel.” And this after contracting poliomyelitis at the age of 6. What is this device that saved many lives in the middle of the 20th century ?

Poliomyelitis (or polio) is a potentially fatal infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. The latter invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis within a few hours. The first symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, neck stiffness and pain in the limbs. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and 5 to 10% of people with paralytic poliomyelitis die from paralysis of the respiratory muscles.

Although there are today 2 vaccines developed in the 1950s that can protect a child for life and therefore provide a glimpse of the possibility of eradicating the disease, this does not mean that there is no possibility of eradicating the disease. was not always the case. And scientists have sought to compensate for the inability to breathe in polio victims.

Imitate breathing

In 1931 in the United States, John Haven Emerson modernized a "steel lung" created in 1928. This device – a box of sorts – allowed to recreate a microenvironment that mimics the way the chest muscles and diaphragm move air in and out of the lungs. The patient lies on his back. The head rests on a support on the outside of the machine with a rubber collar around the neck to provide the seal needed to maintain the pressurized environment. As pressure increases in the reservoir, air is pushed out of the patient's lungs through the mouth, and as pressure decreases in the reservoir, air is drawn into the patient's lungs.

"Most patients only used their iron lung for a few weeks or months, depending on the severity of the attack. polio, but those who left their chest muscles permanently paralyzed by the disease were confined for the rest of their lives ", we can read on the polio website. Ohio State University. Like Paul Alexander, this American who contracted polio in 1952 at the age of 6 and was "confined" until his death a few days ago. "In 1959, 1,200 people used iron lungs in the United States, but by 2017 there were only three." And for good reason, the virtual eradication of polio with the development of Jonas Salk's vaccine in 1952, the use of iron lungs has become largely obsolete.

The Ohio State University nevertheless specifies that with "the global shortage of necessary modern respirators for patients suffering from severe Covid-19, prototypes of new, easily producible versions of the iron lung have been developed."

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