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Disease

Polio

Page last updated on 30 September 2019

Australia has been polio free since 2000. Due to a global effort to put an end to the disease, the number of globally reported polio cases has decreased by over 99% since 1988. The last case reported in Australia was in 2007, where a traveller contracted the infection in Pakistan.

Around 2-5 children out of 100 who have paralysis from polio die. This is because the virus affects the muscles that help them breathe. As a result, artificial respirators, known as ‘the iron lung’ have been used in the past during supportive therapy.  


There is no cure for polio, however it is a vaccine-preventable disease. 

Key disease information

What is polio?

Polio is a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves an infected person partially or fully paralysed. Between 2% - 100% of children and 15% - 30% of adults can die as a result of polio disease, depending on the severity of the case. Polio is a disease caused by one of three types of viruses called the polioviruses.

Polio is very contagious and is spread through person-to-person contact – the virus lives in an infected person’s throat (saliva) and intestines (faeces/poo). 

Around three quarters of people who get infected with the virus will not have any visible symptoms (but can still be contagious). Around a quarter of people infected may experience flu-like symptoms, which may last 2-5 days and could include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness 
  • Headache 
  • Nausea
  • Gastrointestinal (stomach) upset
  • Stiffness of the neck and back (with or without paralysis).

However, some people who get infected may develop more serious symptoms that affect the brain and spinal cord specifically. These might include:

  • Paresthesia (feeling of pins & needles in the legs)
  • Meningitis (inflammation of the protective layers of membrane which cover the brain and spinal cord)
  • Paralysis (inability to move parts of the body) or weakness in the arms, legs or both.

Paralysis is the most severe symptom associated with polio as it can lead to permanent disability or even death.

Does polio still exist?

In Australia, the last two epidemics were in 1956 and 1961 to 1962. Following the introduction of polio vaccine in the 1950s, the last case of locally acquired polio in Australia was in 1972. Australia was declared polio free in 2000.

However, polio does still exist in other parts of the world and cases continue to be reported in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. However, reported cases of polio have been dramatically reduced worldwide through an intensified Global Polio Eradication Initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO).

As there is no cure for polio, the Australian Government recommends that Australians travelling to countries where polio is considered a risk, are up-to-date with recommended vaccinations against polio, including a booster, prior to departure.

How do you prevent polio?

The best protection against polio is immunisation. 

In Australia, the National Immunisation Program (NIP) provides the polio vaccination (in combination with vaccines for other infectious diseases) for children at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, followed by a booster at 4 years of age. All adults should make sure they have been vaccinated against polio. If you have not received at least 3 doses of the polio vaccine, speak with your healthcare professional to make sure you get the correct advice. 

Australians who are travelling should ensure they are up-to-date with their vaccinations against polio and should see their healthcare professional prior to departure to check whether a booster dose is required prior to departure.

How do you contract polio disease?

Polio enters the body through the mouth and is spread by contact with food, liquids, objects or people contaminated with the poliovirus.

Symptoms can develop up to 3 weeks after coming into contact with the virus and people are generally most infectious 7-10 days before and after the beginning of symptoms. People remain contagious for as long as the virus continues to be excreted in their faeces (poo), which can be up to 6 weeks.

How is polio treated?

There is no specific cure for polio, however your doctor may recommend some treatments to help combat the effects of polio:

  • antibiotics – for secondary infections
  • pain-relieving medication
  • portable ventilators to assist breathing
  • medication to reduce muscle spasms
  • moderate exercise
  • massage
  • physiotherapy
  • heat treatments
  • a nutritious diet.
Is polio contagious?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that despite our progress in reducing the incidence of polio, the disease could still easily be imported into a polio free country, such as Australia, and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunised populations. Failure to eradicate polio could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.

To protect yourself against polio (in addition to vaccination), it is recommended that travellers to polio affected countries practice good health hygiene, such as washing hands regularly, avoiding at risk areas and avoid sharing utensils. 

How does polio spread from person to person?

Polio spreads through contact with food, liquid, objects or people contaminated with the poliovirus. The virus enters your body through the mouth, so it is very important to practice good hygiene, washing hands regularly and avoiding contact with people known to be currently infected with polio.

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

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Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government. Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. 4.21 Polio. Available at: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook10-home~handbook10part4~handbook10-4-14 (accessed 14 April 2018).
  2. New South Wales Government Health. Poliomyelitis fact sheet. Available at: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/Poliomyelitis.aspx (accessed 15 April 2018).
  3. Victoria State Government. Better Health Channel. Polio and post-polio syndrome. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/polio-and-post-polio-syndrome (accessed 15 April 2018).
  4. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Polio and the vaccine to prevent it. Symptoms and complications. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/child/polio-basics-color.pdf (accessed 15 April 2018).
  5. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Imported Case of Poliomyelitis, Melbourne, Australia, 2007. Available at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/15/1/08-0791_article (accessed 01 May 2018).
  6. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Global Health. What Is Polio? Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/polio/about/ (accessed 08 May 2018).
  7. World Health Organization. Does polio still exist? Is it curable? Available at: http://www.who.int/features/qa/07/en/ (accessed 13 May 2018).
  8. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Poliomyelitis. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/polio.html (accessed 5 June 2018).
  9. Australian Department of Health. Australia declared polio free. Available at: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/content/cda-pubs-cdi-2002-cdi2602-cdi2602l.htm (accessed 5 June 2018)

SPANZ.IPV.18.04.0155 - Date of preparation May 2018

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