'Fit as a fiddle' Snowdon dismisses polio reports

Lord Snowdon, a teenage victim of polio, yesterday declared himself as "fit as a fiddle and working flat out" as he dismissed reports that he feared a return of the disease which left him with a withered left leg one inch shorter than the other.

The 65-year-old former husband of Princess Margaret said claims that he was suffering from the so-called post-polio syndrome were inaccurate. "I hate talking about polio. It's all rather boring, although I am very sorry for other people who do suffer," he said yesterday.

Lord Snowdon, who spent six months in the Royal Infirmary Hospital in Liverpool when he was 16, believes the confusion may have arisen from an interview with the Daily Telegraph in which he said that he recently read about the experiences of Sir Julian Critchley, the 64-year-old Tory MP for Aldershot, who has experienced increasing pain and disability since1991, after suffering polio as a child.

Medical opinion is divided on the existence of post-polio syndrome or the late effects of polio, as it is known in the UK. It first attracted attention about 15 years ago in the United States when a number of former childhood sufferers started coming forward with a range of symptoms, particularly fatigue and muscle pain, and aggravation of their existing polio injuries.

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has suggested that fragments of the polio virus can be isolated from cerebro-spinal fluid in former victims, but British data, soon to be published, contradicts this view.

Dr Adrian Williams, a leading authority on polio at St Thomas's Hospital, London, where more than 500 "old polio" sufferers have been followed up, said that the new or aggravated symptoms developing 40 years or so after the initial illness could be due to a new neurological disease, or excess wear and tear on joints and muscles used in preference to a weakened limb. "In only a handful of cases have we been unable to explain the symptoms."

According to the British Polio Fellowship, there are more than 30,000 people in the UK still suffering some after-effects of polio, including people still treated in "iron lungs".

There are only two or three new cases a year; the infection may be contracted abroad, or follow vaccination. There have been cases in which unvaccinated fathers have contracted the disease after changing nappies of newly vaccinated babies.

A number of well-known people have had the disease, including Arthur C Clarke, Kerry Packer, the pop singer Ian Dury, and Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian.