an air of deja vu, testimony of a former polio

Struck in their youth, the survivors of the poliovirus face the coronavirus with hindsight. Testimony of Joseph Ciccotelli, for whom the coronavirus epidemic has an air already seen, already known, with some big differences and a lot of philosophy.

What were your first feelings about this coronavirus pandemic?

A feeling returns, for people like us, the old polio, it is a little this air of already seen or already known. This brings us back to childhood memories, our own memories or those told to our parents and other affected people.

Do you see any similarities between the coronavirus and the poliovirus?

There is an obvious resemblance, it is the way in which the coronavirus operates, this invisible, sly, hidden side, as for the poliovirus. And suddenly, we are completely distraught. With a difference, even if for the coronavirus, there are unfortunately many deaths, it is that the mortality rate, with the poliovirus, was much higher since there were up to 22-25% of deaths among infected children. Another difference is that it affected children, especially newborns, much more than adults or seniors.

With a coronavirus that surprised everyone …

Yes, the other difference is recurrence. The coronavirus is the first time that it has been seen to pass, even if there have been somewhat equivalent viruses in the last ten years, whereas the polio virus regularly reappeared from 1920 until the last epidemics in the sixties and the effect of vaccination.

And for the people who survived the poliovirus, it was unstoppable physical after-effects since this virus attacked the nerve cells of the spinal cord. It ended up creating paralysis: paraplegia or quadriplegia. And for the most serious cases, an attack on the pulmonary level with this impossibility of being able to breathe. At a time when respirators, which we talk about so much today, did not exist. Only the invention of the steel lung, allowed some people to survive since they were in a steel box for the rest of their days.

Do you feel more vulnerable to coronavirus?

We are not more or less vulnerable than someone else, except maybe, small flat, for the people who at the time, could have been affected on the pulmonary level where there, there may be an attention special to have. But otherwise, no. We can be as affected, no more no less, than everyone else. Statistically, to make a bit of humor, I hope that having already been hit once by a virus, so that we will not go through it a second time!

What memories do you have of this youth like no other?

The memories of this period are the stories of the epidemic period where we find similarities with today. This quarantine. For children who were 4, 5, 6 years old, there were forbidden to go to school, to approach anyone, ban on swimming pools since in fact this virus was mainly transmitted by water.

We went from hospital to hospital, so surgeons could repair the damage caused by this virus

These are the memories of the epidemic period, but there are especially all the memories of after, that is to say during all these years of reconstruction or repair which, for me, will have lasted a big fifteen years since my last surgery was at the age of 20. We went from hospital to hospital, from institution to institution to try to ensure that surgeons can repair the damage that had been done by this virus as best as possible.

Looking back, what changes has the poliovirus brought about?

Already, to have all these populations which number in tens of thousands of people with disabilities, it helped to change the way we look at disability a little bit. From the moment you have a large population that is affected by the same thing, inevitably, you see it in a different way.

Vaccination and orthopedic surgery

It also brought many things in terms of research and in particular of vaccination since this poliovirus was stopped from the 1960s, and has completely disappeared from industrialized countries. Today it is still present in three countries around the world.

And then, medically, it was the birth and development of many specialized structures and disciplines such as orthopedic surgery or advances in neurology which serve many other diseases such as multiple sclerosis. These hospital structures and great scientists have made a difference.

How do you see this covid-19 epidemic?

We are living this pandemic with the hindsight of those who have already experienced trauma in their life. Obviously, having experienced it once, if something is represented, we see it a little differently. To use the expression of the slammer Grand Corps Malade, we have forged a resistant mind. Suddenly, we have a kind of resilience perhaps more pronounced. You should not be afraid of it because fear is precisely this feeling that allows you to defend yourself from things that could hurt you. But psychologically, we may be able to experience this pandemic differently.

With this pandemic, people are completely disarmed. Because humans are used to living in major disasters, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes that kill thousands of people too. But it is an event which, on the one hand, is transient and very limited in time. It lasts a week, 15 days, a few months. And then we don’t talk about it anymore. There, we have the impression that we are experiencing something which, if we cannot fight it, can last. The fight against poliovirus has lasted for decades and remains relevant today.

Is knowing the virus better to understand it?

Yes, even if we were a child, we were little explained to us: these little “stupids” come into our body to degrade a little things. Later, we learned, academically, academically, we knew the virus and its effects; being informed and understanding things makes you accept them better and we understand how it can degrade the human body at a very high speed.

We send rockets, we know how to invent extraordinary things and a microscopic virus can decimate all of humanity

The resemblance of the two viruses is the ease of entering the human body and coming to degrade organs, and vital organs in this case. And it really works exactly the same way with this invisible side, we see absolutely nothing coming. Now, when we do our shopping, when we take a doorknob, we will never do it again as before.

How do you see the “over-information” around the coronavirus?

For the poliovirus, of course the internet did not exist, there was TV in a few homes. The only media was the radio, which still exists, and that’s good, and the press, the paper newspapers. There was no social media and this possibility, today, to read and see a lot of things always struggling to know what to take or leave. At the time, we were under-informed, even the parents did not understand very well what was happening to their children.

Have we gone from one extreme to the other?

Yes and we realize, with what is happening today, how weak humans are, in fact, since we are the greatest, we are the strongest, we are the masters of the world, we send rockets to other planets, we know how to invent extraordinary things and we realize that a microscopic virus can, if we allow it, to decimate all of humanity.

After this story, we may be much more humble compared to nature, since we realize that she manages to regain the upper hand when she wants to do it.

Is Covid-19 a topic of discussion in your association?

Yes, of course, because this population of former polios that we roughly estimate in France, at 50,000 people, and several millions in the world, gathers. The association allows to share, to exchange information between the old polios, caught up today by the effects of aging. And so much the better because if we get older, that means we’re still there! But we will have to combine these effects with those of our sequelae.

Monitoring and medical committees

In fact, one has to face the effects of aging like any able-bodied person who goes see his functional capacities diminish but with the after-effects of polio in addition. Our association Polio France GLIP is surrounded by medical committees, specialists who follow us and who help us in several disciplines to find answers to our problems.

Joseph Ciccotelli, scientist, writer and member of the Polio France GLIP association. © Radio France
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We are working, for example, at the level of the Regional Health Agency, to set up what is called a post-polio sector to make sure that the effects of this disease – which is no longer taught in medicine – evolve in terms of knowledge, and that we can take better care of this population.

A population trying to keep in touch?

Yes, when we meet in a committee of former polio, we see people hobbling, with walking sticks to the right and left, wheelchairs because often, alas, we all know that one day we will move from cane, from standing to sitting, if only for questions of comfort, ease of movement.

Scary images of the lungs of steel

And when we talk about poliovirus, we all remember those scary images of the steel lungs of the day, where the most seriously affected children were locked up in these spacesuits, the only possibility for them to be able to continue to live or survive. In fact, breathing is all they could do for their day.

These are the sad images of the past, now there are also the beautiful things: everything that each and everyone, the “survivors” as we say in English, have managed to make a living and succeed, family, private, professional. We are all happy, in quotes, to see how we all got out. We couldn’t run with our limbs, so we ran with our head and, for the most part, it didn’t go too badly.

Is the solution the vaccine?

Yes, today we must continue to get vaccinated against polio, the famous vaccine called DTP which also protects against diphtheria and tetanus. We can see that it worked since polio has almost disappeared from the planet, but the poliovirus still exists despite everything that has been done since the 2000s and the hundreds of millions invested to make it disappear forever. Vaccination has eradicated polio which remains in only three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Children suffering from the consequences of polio in a rehabilitation center in Flavigny-sur-Moselle in 1963. - Radio France
Children suffering from the consequences of polio in a rehabilitation institute in Flavigny-sur-Moselle in 1963. © Radio France
Robert Cordier. DR

Joseph Ciccotelli lives in Nancy. Writer, slamer, former scientist, he is on the board of directors of

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