What is Polio?

Polio is a highly contagious disease that mainly infects children aged under five. Many kids who catch the polio virus come down with a flu-like illness with symptoms that include fever, tiredness and vomiting – and then get better.  However, in a good number of cases the virus will spread to the spinal cord and cause permanent damage. In the end, one out of every 200 children who catch polio will be left with permanent paralysis – usually of their legs. Adults who could only walk with leg braces used to be a common sight in Australia, as many people still remember. But the paralysis can be even worse. Some children with polio (about one in every thousand) get such bad damage to the nervous system that their breathing muscles stop working. These kids die by suffocation within hours of getting sick, or at the very best, require a breathing machine for life. Some survivors of the American polio outbreaks of the 1950s are still alive today, having been confined for their entire lives to an “iron lung”.

Image result for polio life cycle
© 2016 Sanofi Pasteur. Used under license (CC-BY-NC-ND).


How do you catch polio?

Polio is transmitted by “fecal-oral route” and the bug multiplies in the lining of the intestines.

A rare disease

Polio is now a rare disease. In the 1940s medical researchers lead by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed a vaccine to prevent polio. Preventing polio is important because doctors have no cure. The only way to prevent the terrible damage that polio can cause is to prevent polio itself. Like all vaccines, the polio vaccine works by training a person’s own immune system to recognize and kill a germ that it has not seen before. Giving the immune system warning can reduce the chance of catching polio. When everybody, or nearly everybody in the community gets a vaccine the situation is even better because the virus dies out altogether.

Polio vaccination has been widely used across the world, including regions with previously high levels of disease.  In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. Since then it has contributed to the 99% fall in polio cases worldwide. Today, because of this decreased incidence of disease, it has been estimated that 16 million people who would otherwise be crippled by this disease are still able to walk. This success story demonstrates the success of vaccination in disease eradication.

Why Should you Vaccinate?

The current vaccination schedule recommends an inactivated form of the virus with only mild side effects such as skin redness and pain. Symptoms such as fever crying and decreased appetite are reported in less than 10% of all babies and can be considered signs of an effective immune response.

While polio is rare worldwide, the illness can still be found in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.  As long as any child in the world is infected, the speed and popularity of air travel puts all children at risk. To keep polio under control it is vital to keep worldwide vaccination rates high. Vaccination protects each child individually as well as the whole community.