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% of children 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
Polio is a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves an infected person partially or fully paralysed. Between 2–5% of children and 15–30% of adults can die as a result of paralytic 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:
• Gastro/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. These might include:
• Paraesthesia (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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- heat treatments
- a nutritious diet.
Polio is very 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.
Polio spreads through contact with food, liquid, objects or people contaminated with the poliovirus. The virus enters the 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.
Sources & Citations
- Australian Government. Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook – Poliomyelitis. Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/poliomyelitis (accessed 18 March 2020).
- World Health Organization. Poliomyelitis factsheet. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/poliomyelitis (accessed 18 March 2020).
- Eichel T, Dreux ML. Anaesth Intensive Care 2017;45(7):13–20.
- 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 18 March 2020).
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Global Health. What Is Polio? Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/polio/about (accessed 18 March 2020).
- Souza RM et al. Commun Dis Intell 2002;26:253–260.
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Travelers’ Health. Polio. Available at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/diseases/poliomyelitis (accessed 18 March 2020).
SPANZ.IPV.18.04.0155(1) - Date of preparation March 2020Show All