Poliomyelitis (polio)

Dr. Ira Shah
Consultant Pediatrician, B.J.Wadia Hospital for Children, Mumbai, India
First Created: 02/05/2001  Last Updated: 02/05/2001

Patient Education

What is Polio?

Polio or poliomyelitis is a disease that causes paralysis due to poliovirus. Polio viruses are of 3 types - Type I, II or III. Hence infection due to any one of the viruses can lead to polio.

How common is polio?

With routine immunization with the polio vaccine (OPV or IPV), polio has been eradicated from most of the countries. However, poliomyelitis is still seen in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nigeria.

How is the polio virus transmitted?

The most common route of transmission of poliovirus is through eating or drinking contaminated food or water. An infected person excretes the poliovirus for 6-8 weeks in the stools. The virus in the sewage can survive for 48 hours and contamination of sewage with food and water can transmit the virus.

What are the symptoms of polio?

On exposure to the poliovirus, the symptoms usually appear after 7-10 days. Patients have a fever, sore throat, vomiting, or diarrhea that may last for a few days followed by a period of relatively no symptoms following which paralysis may occur. In most patients, the infection subsides with the minor illness, and paralysis may not occur. In patients with paralysis, there is severe pain and tremors in the muscles before the onset of paralysis. The paralysis usually affects legs more than any other muscles and the muscles are loose and paralyzed. The paralysis may be precipitated by trauma, recent tonsillectomy, or following intramuscular injection.

Do all persons exposed to polio virus develop poliomyelitis?

Persons who are vaccinated with the polio vaccine are immune to the disease and do not develop the infection. Only unvaccinated children are prone to getting the infection.

Does the polio paralysis improve?

The poliovirus may cause paralysis of the muscles of legs, spine, hands, and even cause problems in the muscles of breathing and swallowing during the acute phase. As the illness subsides and recovery begins, the degree of recovery may be minimal or complete recovery may occur. Maximum recovery of affected muscles takes place in the first six months but slow recovery may continue for up to two years. Physiotherapy is very essential to achieve maximum mobility and prevent deformities.

How is the diagnosis of Polio made?

Polio is a diagnosis on clinical grounds. Any unvaccinated child who presents with acute paralysis and looseness of muscles is suspected to have polio. The disease is confirmed by the isolation of poliovirus in the stools.

What is the treatment of poliomyelitis?

Complete bed rest is essential during acute symptoms. The paralyzed legs and muscles should be kept in a relaxed position to prevent deformities. Passive movements at each joint should be done 2 to 3 times a day to maintain the mobility of the joints. Hot packs over the muscles and pain killers are useful to control the pain in the muscles. If a patient has difficulty in breathing or swallowing, immediate hospitalization in an intensive care unit is essential.

Once recovery starts, physiotherapy is the cornerstone of treatment.

How is polio prevented?

Proper immunization with vaccine (either OPV or IPV) is essential to make the child immune to the disease.

What is Pulse Polio immunization?

Polio can be eradicated from the world just as smallpox has been eradicated. In most countries, polio is no longer seen. However, in countries where polio is still present, the government has instituted certain days in a year where all children below 5 years of age irrespective of whether they have received a polio vaccine in the past or not are given a polio vaccine. This ensures that all children receive the vaccine which will help to increase their immunity against polio and thus eradicating the disease.


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