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In Australia during 2009, June Middleton died at the age of 83 with an unusual distinction. She had spent the last 60 years of her life inside an iron lung.

Most of us would consider having our bodies locked inside a steel tube as a form of torture -- but for people with Polio in the 1940's, it was a magical opportunity for survival. The worst Polio epidemic of 1952 infected half a million Americans -- most of whom developed only mild upper respiratory symptoms. But for 60 thousand, the virus would destroy the anterior horn cells of the spinal cord, killing the long nerves that run to the legs -- producing patchy, asymmetrical paralysis of muscle groups. Striking mostly younger people during the summertime, "infantile paralysis" left spindle-legged children dependent upon knee braces and crutches, often with deformed backs and atrophied muscles. Even President Franklin Roosevelt was confined for life to a wheelchair due to suspected polio. Among the unluckiest, paralysis of the muscles of respiration caused gradual suffocation. Terror of Poliomyelitis struck the hearts of generations of parents.

During the 1930's, the Iron Lung was a miraculous lifesaver for Polio victims. Essentially a metal tank with a hole in the end to allow the patient's head to stick out, the Lung included a bellows arrangement to raise and lower the pressure inside the chamber, forcing air in and out of the chest. This "negative pressure" system was actually superior to most modern ventilators used today -- although far more expensive and difficult to maintain. For victims forced to live the rest of their lives inside the Lung, it meant exile into a world where they would be dependent on others for the rest of their lives.

Although rows of these machines once lined the halls of hospitals, the Iron Lung is now a relic from another era. Due to the heroic efforts of countless people to develop and spread a vaccine, Polio -- which has no disease reservoir outside humans -- is on the verge of being eliminated forever from the Earth. Victims of similar illnesses such as Guillain-Barre and ALS may still appear among us, but this is one diagnosis even a hypochondriac can dismiss with a sigh of relief. Whatever may be wrong with you -- it isn't Polio.

Take a minute to thank the ghost of Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the Polio Vaccine -- a warrior who forever banished from human existence a horror that your kids and their descendents will never have to fear again.

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