What is Polio?

Poliomyelitis, which is more commonly known as ‘polio’, is a serious and highly infectious viral disease caused by one of three types of the poliovirus. Polio is most commonly spread by the consumption of food and water that has been contaminated by the faeces (poo) of an infected person. It can also be spread by direct contact with an infected person via saliva or mucus. Polio mainly affects young children and babies who live in conditions where there is inadequate sanitation, and can cause complications such as muscle weakness and paralysis.

Thanks to the creation and worldwide distribution of a highly effective and inexpensive polio vaccine, cases of polio have reduced by over 99% since 1988. While in the 20th century polio was one of the most widespread and dangerous childhood diseases in the world, most countries in world are now polio-free. There are only three countries where the spread of polio has not been stopped: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

What are the symptoms of polio?

Most people who are infected with poliovirus will actually not display any signs of illness at all, as the body is able to fight off the poliovirus before it can cause any health complications. Even without any signs or symptoms, a person infected with poliovirus can still spread the virus to other people and cause an infection.

Some people who are infected with poliovirus may develop flu-like symptoms, which usually appear 3 to 21 days after infection.

These symptoms can include:

  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • stomach pain
  • feeling sick (nausea), sometimes vomiting
  • tiredness
  • muscle ache

In rare cases, the poliovirus can cause major complications by infecting the nerves in the spine and brain. This is known as paralytic polio.

Symptoms of paralytic polio include:

  • loss of reflexes
  • severe muscle aches or weakness
  • involuntary muscle spasms
  • paralysis, which may be permanent
  • floppy limbs (flaccid paralysis)

Can you still get polio?

The risk of getting polio now is very low, thanks to a worldwide effort to eradicate the disease. Babies in the UK are routinely vaccinated against polio by the NHS, and additional boosters are offered to children and teenagers. Most countries across the world have similar vaccination programmes, which have helped to reduce the number of cases of polio by over 99% in the last 30 years.

However, the World Health Organisation states that even if a single person is infected with the poliovirus, there is still a serious risk of the disease making a comeback. It is estimated that if the poliovirus is not completely eradicated, within 10 years it could cause up to 200,000 new cases of polio a year. The polio vaccine offers immunity for around 10 years, so if it has been longer than that since your last booster, then you are potentially at risk of getting the disease - for example if you travel to a risk area. For some countries, you may be advised to get a booster if you haven’t had one in the last 12 months.

How is polio spread?

Polio is a highly contagious virus, and has two main ways of spreading: the faecal-oral route and the oral-oral route. There is a third, rarer, way to get polio: vaccine-derived polio.

Faecal-oral route – when the faeces (poo) of someone infected with polio makes it way into your mouth, it can travel down into the intestines and multiply, causing an infection. A common method of transmission is by eating food, or drinking water, than has been contaminated with tiny faecal particles. These particles can get into food and water in a number of ways, such as a food handler not properly washing their hands after using the bathroom, or sewage contaminating a water supply.

Oral-oral route – although less common, you can also get polio if the saliva or mucus of someone infected with polio makes it way into your mouth. This includes contact with the droplets expelled when someone sneezes or cough, or contact with surfaces or objects that have been contaminated with those infected droplets.

Vaccine-derived polio – rarely, polio can be caused by the oral polio vaccine, which contains a small amount of the live, but weakened, poliovirus. This virus multiplies in the intestines while the body develops the antibodies necessary to fight off the infection and build up an immunity, and in rare cases can spread to other people in areas with poor sanitation or low vaccination rates. As the weakened virus spreads, it is may mutate, and could become dangerous again. Inactivated polio vaccines, which do not contain the live poliovirus, cannot cause polio. Superdrug Health Clinics only offers the inactivated vaccine.

Children are at a higher risk of catching polio because they are less likely to frequently wash their hands, which means they are more likely to pick up the virus. Younger children may have a tendency to put objects that could be contaminated with poliovirus, such as toys or TV remotes, into their mouths.

Can polio be cured?

There is currently no cure for polio, only treatments that can prevent people getting the disease in the first place. Treatment is focused on providing the body with comfort and support to help manage the symptoms, so the immune system may effectively fight off the virus.

Supportive treatment for polio includes:

  • painkillers, to ease muscle aches and pains
  • bed rest, so the body can conserve energy to fight the virus
  • breathing support, such as ventilators
  • muscle relaxants, to reduce the severity of muscle spasms
  • physiotherapy, such as stretches and exercises, to keep muscles and joints healthy

How can I protect myself against polio?

Get the polio vaccine – the best way to protect yourself against polio is to get vaccinated, which has been effective in reducing worldwide cases of polio by over 99%. If you were born in the UK, you should have been vaccinated against polio as a baby and received booster jabs at ages 3 and 14. The polio vaccine is only effective for 10 years, so if it has been 10 years since your last booster than you may need another one. Depending on your trip, sometimes you might need another vaccine if you haven’t had one in the last 12 months. Superdrug offers a combined, inactivated vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria, and polio which you can get at any Superdrug Health Clinic in the UK.

Watch what you eat – polio most commonly spreads when infected faeces (poo) gets into the mouth, typically by consuming contaminated food and water. If you are travelling to an area where there is a risk of polio, you should only drink bottled water and avoid eating food that may not have been prepared in sanitary conditions.

Keep your hands clean – you should always wash your hands before preparing food or eating, especially in areas with a risk of polio. It is possible to pick up the virus from contaminated surfaces, which could cause an infection if you put your hands near your mouth or transfer the virus to your food while preparing or eating it.