Did Modern Ventilators Replace the Iron Lung for Folks with Polio?

Believe it or not, some folks don’t think that vaccines work and that some diseases, like smallpox and polio, never really went away.

Residual paralysis that lasts more than 60 days is the strongest predictor that a case is really polio, which is why, in addition to testing for polio virus, the 60 day standard is used.
Want the real truth? Residual paralysis that lasts more than 60 days is the strongest predictor that a case is really polio, which is why, in addition to testing for polio virus, the 60 day standard is used.

Of course, they have special little theories for how this all works.

Did Modern Ventilators Replace the Iron Lung for Folks with Polio?

In addition to thinking that we just change the names of diseases when we want them to go away, some folks think that we don’t see anyone in iron lungs anymore, not because polio has been eliminated, but because modern ventilators simply replaced the iron lung.

Is that true?

The iron lung, invented in 1927, helped people with polio breath.

In fact, in the 1940s and 1950s, there were whole hospital wards full of polio patients in iron lungs.

Unlike most of today’s ventilators, the iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator. In contrast, most modern ventilators, the ones that you see people hooked up to with a tube going down to their lungs, are positive pressure ventilators.

Iron Lung

What’s the difference?

A positive pressure ventilator pushes air into your lungs. They are useful when you have a lung disease or simply can’t breath on your own.

When people had polio, there usually wasn’t anything wrong with their lungs – it was their chest muscles and diaphragm that were the problem. So the negative pressure in the iron lung would compress and decompress their chest.

One benefit of the iron lung included that it was less invasive than ventilating someone through a tracheostomy, which became an option in the 1960s. While many new options became available for those needing long term ventilation since then, including noninvasive positive pressure ventilation, some still like to use their iron lungs.

Thanks to vaccines, most folks will only see an iron lung in a museum and read about polio in history books.
Thanks to vaccines, most folks will only see an iron lung in a museum and read about polio in history books. Photo by Oscar Tarragó, M.D., M.P.H.

And while it is true that they don’t make them anymore, iron lungs have not disappeared. There are some folks with polio that still use them.

But what if someone developed polio now, would they be put in an iron lung?

No, they wouldn’t. For one thing, they don’t make iron lungs anymore. Instead, they would likely use mouth intermittent positive pressure ventilation.

Still, we don’t see a lot of folks getting diagnosed with polio, needing to use mouth intermittent positive pressure ventilation, instead of iron lungs these days. And that’s because we don’t see a lot of folks getting diagnosed with polio.

Vaccines work. Polio is almost eradicated.

What to Know About Polio, Modern Ventilators and Iron Lungs

Although some people with polio are still using their iron lungs, the main reason we don’t see more people with polio needing to use iron lungs or modern ventilators is simply because polio is almost eradicated.

More on Ventilators and Iron Lungs

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