What is Polio - FAQ

african american boy taking oral vaccine

Polio (or poliomyelitis) is a disease caused by poliovirus. It can cause lifelong paralysis (cannot move parts of the body), and it can be deadly.

Initial symptoms of polio are:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Pain in the limbs

Polio mainly affects children under 5 years of age.

Poliovirus enters the body through the mouth, in water or food that has been contaminated with fecal material from an infected person. The virus multiplies in the intestine and is excreted by the infected person in feces, which can pass on the virus to others.

Poliovirus is very contagious. It spreads through contact with the stool (poop) of an infected person or droplets from a sneeze or cough. If you get stool or droplets from an infected person on your hands and you touch your mouth, you can get infected. Also, if your child puts objects, like toys, that have stool or droplets on them into their mouth, they can get infected.

An infected person may spread the virus to others immediately before and usually 1 to 2 weeks after developing symptoms. The virus may live in an infected person’s stool for many weeks. He or she can contaminate food and water when they touch it with unwashed hands.

Polio does not respect borders – any unimmunized child is at risk. For every case of paralysis there are between 200 and 1000 children infected without symptoms. So it is hard to detect polio and hard to prevent the virus from travelling. Children living in areas where immunity levels are low are particularly vulnerable. The best defense against polio importations is to eradicate the virus. Only then will all children be safe.

No, there is no cure for polio. Polio vaccine is the only protection against polio. Safe and effective vaccines exist – the oral polio vaccine (OPV) and the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV).

OPV is administered orally and can be given by volunteers. OPV protects both the individual and the community, it is essential to stop wild poliovirus (WPV) transmission.

IPV is given by injection and needs to be administered by a trained health worker. IPV is extremely effective in protecting children from polio, but cannot stop the spread of virus in a community.

To stop polio we need to:

  • Engage entire societies in the effort to reach every last child
  • Make special plans to reach children from mobile and migrant populations, in conflict zones, or in remote regions
  • Strengthen routine immunization, which is the best national defence against polio
  • Improve surveillance in high-risk areas
  • Encourage governments to reach out to the poorest people with other public services
  • Continue to receive the highest level of political commitment from national governments and multilateral institutions
  • Ensure the needed financial resources are in place to finish the job
Page last reviewed: October 24, 2019
Content source: Global Immunization