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Poliomyelitis

Introduction

Polio is a serious infection caused by the poliovirus. It can infect the spinal cord, causing inability to move parts of the body (paralysis) and in some cases can become life threatening.

Recommendations for travellers

Practice safe hand hygiene and food and water precautions during travel to reduce your risk of exposure to polio virus; it is spread through unsafe food and water.

There are vaccines that protect you from polio.

  • Children in the UK normally receive polio vaccinations as part of the British vaccination schedule.
  • Everyone should receive a minimum of 5 doses of a polio-containing vaccine to have good long-term protection. This should be documented in your medical notes held by your General practitioner.
  • You can receive booster doses of polio-containing vaccines if you have not had all 5 doses.

If you are travelling to a country where poliovirus is considered high risk, or a country which is reporting an outbreak, you should consider:

  • if you have not completed the minimum of 5 doses of polio-containing vaccine, you may need additional doses before you travel.
  • if you have completed the minimum of 5 doses of polio-containing vaccine, you should have a booster dose of polio-containing vaccine if more than 10 years since any previous doses.

Review both the Immunisation and Alerts sections of each country page for information on vaccination and certificate requirements, and discuss with your travel health advisor if you are unsure.

  • Pakistan and Afghanistan are considered the countries with the highest risk. But polio outbreaks do occur in other countries when the disease is spread amongst people who may not be fully vaccinated.

Vaccination

Adults

REVAXIS is the vaccine used in the UK to protect adults against polio. The vaccine is a combination vaccine which is also used to protect against diphtheria and tetanus diseases.

Children

Infanrix hexa, Boostrix-IPV, REPEVAX and REVAXIS are the vaccines used in the UK to protect children against polio. The vaccine used depends on the child’s age but they are all combination vaccines which also protect against other diseases.

Overview of the Disease

Poliovirus only infects people and it is very contagious.

The virus lives in an infected person’s throat and intestines. It enters the body through the mouth and spreads through:

  • contact with the poo from an infected person
  • droplets from a cough or sneeze from an infected person, this is less common

You can become infected if you:

  • have poo on your hands and you touch your mouth
  • put objects in your mouth that are contaminated with the infected poo

Food and water can sometimes become contaminated with the poo from an infected person in areas where sanitation and personal hygiene are poor.

Polio mainly affects children. The virus can be prevented by vaccination, meaning that if every child in the world is vaccinated against polio, the virus could be completely eliminated.

The Illness

Most people who are infected with poliovirus won’t have any obvious symptoms, but could still pass on the infection to others without knowing.

Some people will develop flu-like symptoms such as:

  • high temperature (fever)
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • tiredness
  • tummy pain
  • feeling and being sick (nausea)

In a small number of people, the virus may attack the nerves of the spine and brain, causing more serious symptoms such as:

  • numbness or ‘pins and needles’ in the limbs
  • inflammation of the brain (meningitis)
  • inability to move parts of the body (paralysis)

Treatment

There is no cure for polio. Treatment may include resting in bed, taking pain killers or stretching exercises to prevent problems with muscles and joints.

Those suffering from mild or no symptoms will fully recover from the infection, with supportive treatment.

Those who develop more serious symptoms may be left with persistent problems or a permanent disability. If the breathing muscles are affected, hospital care may be required to assist the lungs to breathe as this can become life threatening.

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