The Re-Emergence of Polio: What You Need to Know

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Illustration of Enteroviruses

The first U.S. case of polio in a decade and evidence of community spread in New York raises concerns about a disease most Americans have never had to think about.

Vaccines developed in the 1950s and 1960s eradicated polio in the United States. The disease was once among the most feared in the nation, causing more than 15,000 cases of paralysis a year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The current case was found in an unvaccinated man in Rockland County in southern New York. Wastewater samples taken there and in neighboring Orange County, NY, turned up evidence the virus has circulated.

New York health officials warned that hundreds of people may be infected. Health authorities are urging unvaccinated people to get vaccinated.

Most people who have been vaccinated against polio need not worry about contracting the disease. If you were vaccinated as a child and are living in or traveling to an area where the virus is circulating, it would be wise to get a booster shot, says Amy Edwards, MD, University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s pediatric infectious disease specialist.

What is Polio?

Poliovirus spreads person to person and, in some cases, can lead to severe disability or death.

Most people who are infected have no symptoms. Some develop flu-like symptoms, including sore throat, fever, muscle pain, headache and fatigue. The virus can infect the spinal cord and cause paralysis in about one in 200 people infected.

One of the most famous people stricken with polio was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. The virus left Roosevelt paralyzed from the waist down.

About 25-40 percent of polio survivors develop symptoms decades after recovering from the initial infection, according to the CDC. The complication, called post-polio syndrome, can cause muscle weakness and joint pain.

How Does Polio Spread?

Polio is highly contagious and can be spread by people who have no symptoms. Polio is an enterovirus, which means it is spread by the fecal-oral route, Dr. Edwards says.

“People poop, they get the virus on their hands and then touch things and touch other people (shake hands) and then those people eat food with their hands or put their hand in their mouth,” she says.

“A very simple way to stop transmission is to keep your hands away from your face and to always wash your hands before eating, especially if you have been out and about.”

Use hand sanitizer when moving around in public areas where sinks aren’t readily available.

Vaccination Is Key

Polio vaccination is part of routine vaccinations for U.S. children. The CDC recommends children receive four doses of polio vaccine, starting at 2 months old. The disease was officially eradicated in 1979, but people may still bring the disease to the United States from overseas.

While polio has been eradicated in most of the world over the past 30-plus years, adults traveling to areas where polio risk is higher -- and who are unvaccinated or uncertain of their vaccination status -- are advised to get a series of three doses, the CDC says.

If you are vaccinated and traveling to higher-risk areas, a single booster shot is recommended, Dr. Edwards says.

“I would say if it has been since childhood since you have had the polio vaccine, and you live in or are traveling to New York, I would get a booster,” she says. People who aren’t sure whether they were vaccinated as a child and don’t have a vaccine record should also get vaccinated, Dr. Edwards says.

Related Links

To schedule an appointment for a polio vaccine, contact your health care provider or local health department or pharmacy.

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s has the region’s largest coordinated network of pediatric primary care providers, committed to delivering the very best care to children of all ages, including routine immunizations. Find a UH Rainbow pediatric practice near you.

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