Polio was at its peak throughout the 1940’s-1950’s, disabling over 35,000 people per year. By the 1960’s an effective vaccine had been developed and distributed, not only bringing the spread of the virus under control but also nearly eliminating it entirely.

Now, nearly 80 years later, cases of polio are again on the rise. Polio has been detected in wastewater in areas throughout the United States, meaning that polio disease may begin circulating. While there is a vaccine for polio, booster doses may be suggested by doctors for populations most at risk. Families should stay updated on local news and check CDC recommendations regularly.

What is Polio?

Polio is a disease caused by poliovirus. This disease is disabling and life threatening; those who are unvaccinated and infected with this disease may suffer from meningitis, paralysis, and in severe cases, death. Most people who become infected don’t show any symptoms. About 25% of people will have flu-like symptoms such as:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain
  • Excessive tiredness

There is no cure for paralytic polio, nor specific treatment (some antivirals were under study, but are not readily available nor approved). People who suffer from severe cases of polio will have individualized medical plans based on their specific needs.

How is Poliovirus Transmitted?

Polio is very contagious; it spreads by person-to-person contact and can contaminate food and water. It lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines, entering the body through the mouth. The disease is commonly spread from contact with infected feces or droplets of an infected person’s cough or sneeze. Babies or small children may contract polio by sucking on objects that have been exposed to feces or germs (i.e., building blocks at a day care, a slide at a public park, etc.) or in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation practices. An infected person can spread the virus up to 2 weeks after initial infection; immunocompromised persons may shed for longer.

How Can I Avoid Contracting Polio?

Precautions you should take to stay healthy are the same as what you’d do to avoid other diseases:

  • Get fully vaccinated: Check vaccine records and follow CDC recommendations.
  • Practice good hygiene and sanitation: Wash hands often and disinfect frequently used surface.
  • Contact a healthcare provider: If you suspect that your child is sick or they came in contact with a person who is unvaccinated, contact your pediatrician.
  • Check travel destination: When traveling internationally, you may need to show proof of polio vaccine status. You may also need to get a booster shot. Contact your pediatrician if able at least one month before international travel to plan ahead.

What Should I Know About the Polio Vaccine?

You can help your family prevent the contraction and transmission of polio by making sure your vaccination history is up to date. There are two types of the polio vaccine: inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV) and oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV). Since 2000, IPV has been given to patients in the United States, as it works to defend poliovirus from attacking the body; 99% of people who get the recommended number of doses of IPV will be protected from the disease. Vaccination is critical to eradicate this disease!

According to the CDC:

  • Children should get 4 doses of the polio vaccine (at 2 months old, 4 months, 6-18 months, and 4-6 years).
  • Adults who have been vaccinated against polio, but are at an increased risk of exposure, can receive one IPV booster in their lifetime.
  • Adults who were not fully vaccinated as children should complete their vaccination with the appropriate number of doses.

If you have questions about the childhood immunization schedule, the vaccines your child is receiving, or side effects associated with vaccines, talk with your child’s doctor. For more information about vaccines, you can also visit this page.

Featured Expert

Cristina Tomatis Souverbielle
Cristina Tomatis Souverbielle, MD
Infectious Diseases

Cristina Tomatis Souverbielle, MD is a member of the Infectious Diseases Physician Team and Fellowship Faculty at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

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