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What is Polio?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Poliomyelitis or polio is a acute viral infectious disease. It is spread through crowding, unclean conditions, and improper sanitation of waste fluids. During the early 20th century, this disease devastated many populations around the world; thanks to vaccines developed in the middle of the century, it is rare in first world countries. Unfortunately, lack of thorough vaccination in developing nations makes polio a recurring problem in these areas of the world.

The infection is caused by the poliovirus, a virus that attacks the digestive tract in human beings. There are three classes of the disease, and the most mild, type three, represents the bulk of infections. The patient may experience a general feeling of malaise and flu-like symptoms, but he or she may not even realize that these symptoms are the result of a polio infection. In more severe cases, the virus gets into the bloodstream and starts to rapidly multiply, causing more serious health problems.

A more aggressive form of polio is focused on the spinal cord. It causes a condition known as aseptic meningitis, which can be very serious. The patient experiences the classic symptoms of meningitis, such as a fever and stiff neck, but the symptoms are caused by the virus instead of the bacteria and viruses more commonly associated with meningococcal disease. It can be treated by keeping the patient hydrated and rested, on a firm bed.

The most serious type of polio is associated with paralysis. About 1% of cases will result in a condition called flaccid paralysis, in which the virus interrupts muscle signals, causing muscles to grow slack and weak. In some cases, the body can naturally recover, growing fresh nerve cells to replace the damaged ones. In other instances, permanent paralysis or disfigurement may result. If the polio reaches the brain or lungs, it can be fatal, as it will cause the patient to stop breathing. More aggressive therapy, such as putting the patient on a ventilator, may be required for survival.

When a polio outbreak is occurring, proper hygiene is crucial. The disease has a three to 12 day incubation period, so members of a household may already have it. To prevent the spread of the disease, water should be boiled before drinking, and the house should be kept scrupulously clean. Once a patient has been diagnosed with the virus, he or she may face a lengthy period of physical therapy, if the infection takes a paralytic form.

In 1955, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio, using deactivated virus. Albert Sabin followed in 1963 with an easy to administer oral active vaccine, which is also highly effective. Routine vaccination this disease is standard in many countries as a result.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon169079 — On Apr 19, 2011

To apple58tree: I had an operation for tendon transfer and muscle transplant in or about 1955 done by Dr. Mustard who has since died. Many polio survivors have had several operations since. Fortunately for me so far, I have not needed any. I have, however, been diagnosed with post polio syndrome. Try contacting the March of Dimes.

By anon163183 — On Mar 26, 2011

my mom said when i was born in 1952 that i had it in my left leg and she was told to take a broom stick and roll it down my leg to help straighten it. i always got what we called charlie horses in behind my left knee cap, and I still do, only now my left knee hurts more often. it's hard to get to sleep at night without a heating pad on it. is my polio returning?

By suntan12 — On Oct 03, 2010

Oasis11- There are several levels of polio with the most severe cases causing death. Polio eradication was a goal of the Pan American World Organization and the World Health Organization.

They increased the amount of available polio vaccines and polio immunizations and included door to door initiatives.

It is their goals to complete eradicate polio within the next ten years. This is a global polio eradication initiative.

Polio today is not as widespread as it was fifty years ago, but there was a recent case in 1999 in United States.

Usually polio treatment for children results in the IPV polio vaccine. After two does the child has a 92% rate of protection, with three doses provides 99% protection. Most children are done with these booster shots by age 6.

By oasis11 — On Oct 03, 2010

Apple58tree- I am so sorry that you had to go through so many surgeries. I could even imagine what that was like. I don’t have an answer to your questions, but I wish you luck in your quest to find answers.

I just want to say that most children now are vaccinated against polio. My mother suffered from polio as a child and as a result, she had a paralytic left leg and she walked with a limp. She grew up in the 50’s and polio was still a threatening disease.

By apple58tree — On Sep 04, 2010

I would like to know if anyone under 55 years old who had the more severe polio and have had surgeries to help them walk. I am 52 and had many orthopedic surgeries from age 2 in 1960 to my most recent elbow surgery five weeks ago.

I had my right hip operated on by a Dr. Mustard at sick kid's hospital in toronto in 1967. Has anyone else had this doctor? So far I have had 31 surgeries and more are sure to follow. Older people did not have the medical help that I got as a child, so I would be interested if anyone else had surgeries and if they are having ongoing problems.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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