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The man in the iron lung

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When he was six, Paul Alexander contracted polio and was paralysed for life. Today he is 74, and one of the last people in the world still using an iron lung. But after surviving one deadly outbreak, he did not expect to find himself threatened by another. By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

The summer of 1952 was hot, even by Texas standards: 25 days above 100F (38C), the “cool” days not much cooler. But across the state, swimming pools were shut. Cinemas were, too, and bars and bowling alleys. Church services were suspended. Cities doused their streets with DDT insecticide; by now, health officials knew that mosquitoes didn’t spread the disease, but they had to be seen to be doing something. Nothing seemed to work. As the summer wore on, the numbers of polio cases grew.

One day in July, in a quiet Dallas suburb, a six-year-old boy named Paul Alexander was playing outside in the summer rain. He didn’t feel well – his neck hurt, his head pounded. Leaving his muddy shoes in the yard, he walked barefoot into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam behind him. That would usually have earned him a swatting in a 1950s Texas household, but when his mother looked up at his feverish face, she gasped. She made him run out and grab his shoes, then ordered him to bed.

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