What should you know about polio? A Swedish expert has answers.

August 18, 2022 Swedish Health Team

[5 min read]

In this article: 

  • After near eradication in the 20th century, the poliovirus is rebounding. 

  • A Swedish expert explains what we should know about the virus and how it spreads. 

  • Vaccination is the best way to protect you and your family.  

As COVID-19 continues to grip the nation and worries about MPV (the monkeypox virus) mount, health officials in New York State reported a case of polio in July; it was the first case of polio detected in the United States since 2013. Since reporting initial case in July, health officials have announced finding evidence of poliovirus in New York City's sewage. 

 
Once nearly eradicated and now rebounding, polio—which is short for poliomyelitis—is caused by poliovirus and can cause life-threatening paralysis if it infects the spinal cord. Polio was once one of the most feared diseases in the United States. In the late 1940’s, before the availability of a vaccine, the disease disabled an average of 35,000 people per year. The specter of the disease was so frightening that parents kept children indoors during the summertime height of the transmission season and public health officials imposed quarantines and restrictions on travel and commerce. 
 
The first effective polio vaccine was developed in 1952 by Jonas Salk. After licensure in 1955, children’s vaccination campaigns and mass vaccination sites were launched. By 1961 only 161 cases were recorded in the United States. 
 
Today, a number of factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic are frustrating efforts to stop the reappearance of polio. In addition to polio’s detection in New York State, health officials in London have found evidence of poliovirus in sewage samples there, reigniting concern for a possible outbreak. In response, U.K. health authorities have said that every child between the ages of one and nine should be offered a booster shot of the polio vaccine.  
 
We spoke with Donna Jensen, chief nursing officer, physician enterprise, Puget Sound region, to learn more about the poliovirus, the vaccine and how we can protect ourselves during the current resurgence.
 
What is polio? 
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by one of three types of poliovirus that live in the human gastrointestinal tract. It affects mainly children under 5 years of age. 
 
What are the symptoms of a polio infection? 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people who get infected will not have any visible symptoms of polio. About one in four people will experience flu-like symptoms lasting several days that go away on their own. These symptoms include: 
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting  
  • Headache
The CDC says that a smaller number of people will develop more serious polio symptoms, including:
  • Paresthesia, or a feeling of pins and needles in the legs
  • Meningitis, an infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain
  • Paralysis or weakness in the arms and/or legs.
How is polio transmitted? 
Polio is extremely contagious. Infectious particles are shed via fecal matter and can infect other people if they are transferred to the mouth via unwashed hands or in contaminated food or drink. Less frequently, polio can spread when droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough enter someone’s mouth. As with COVID-19, it’s possible to spread the virus even if you don’t have any symptoms. 
 
Who is at risk and should I get vaccinated? 
The oral polio vaccine, which helped the United States eliminate the disease, is not administered anymore, so anyone who has not received the recommended doses of polio vaccine, including babies. 
 
Although vaccination isn’t necessary for most adults who were immunized against polio as children and have a low risk of exposure, the CDC recommends a one-time booster shot for certain groups, including:
  • Those traveling to a country where the risk of getting polio is greater.  The CDC recommends checking with your healthcare provider for specific information on whether you need to be vaccinated.
  • Those who are working in a laboratory and handling specimens that might contain polioviruses.
  • Healthcare workers treating patients who could have polio or have close contact with a person who could be infected with poliovirus.
What types of polio vaccines are used against polio? 
  • Inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV)
  • IPV is the only polio vaccine that has been used in the United States since 2000.
  • It is given by shot in the leg or arm, depending on the patient’s age.
  • Children should get four doses total, with one dose at each of the following ages:
- 2 months old
- 4 months old,
- 6 through 18 months old, and
- 4 through 6 years old.
 
  • This vaccine is no longer licensed or available in the United States.
  • It is still used in some parts of the world.
  • Children receive doses of the vaccine by drops in the mouth.
 
Are there known cases in Washington State? 
There are currently no known cases in Washington State. 
 
What should I do if I suspect someone in my family has polio symptoms? 
If you suspect someone has polio symptoms or has been exposed to someone with confirmed polio, contact your primary physician or provider.  You may need to be evaluated and tested. Make a list of your symptoms, information about recent exposure including international travel, and medical history.  
 
What is the treatment for polio?
There is no specific treatment or cure for polio. Treatment is supportive.
 
How can I prevent getting polio?
The best prevention is vaccination. Children get four doses of polio vaccine, one dose at each of the following ages: 2 months old, 4 months old, 6 through 18 months old and 4 through 6 years old. Adults who completed their polio vaccination but who are at increased risk may receive one lifetime booster.
 
How is Swedish preparing for a possible polio outbreak? 
Swedish has verified that our primary care and pediatric clinics have the polio vaccine and are able to administer vaccine either as primary doses or boosters depending on the person’s needs.
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Learn more and find a provider
 
Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
 
 
Additional Resources: 
 
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.
 
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