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Facts About...


What is it?

Polio (short for poliomyelitis) is caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system and can destroy the nerve cells in muscles leading to permanent paralysis of the muscles used for breathing, eating and walking. It can also cause death.

Before the availability of polio vaccine in 1955, polio was common worldwide. The most recent case of polio occurred in 1988 from a virus imported from another country. Canada was polio-free in 1994, and Ontario has had no cases of polio since that time. However, polio does continue to exist in some developing countries such as Africa and Asia.

How is it spread?

Polio virus is found in the throat and stool of infected individuals. It is spread through close contact between people. It can be spread directly to another person through coughing or sneezing. Less often it is spread by eating/drinking contaminated food or drinks of an infected person. Poor personal hygiene, especially after using the washroom, can spread the polio virus from the stool of an infected person to the mouth of another person. Infected persons are most contagious from a few days before to a few days after the start of symptoms, but can spread the infection as long as the virus is in the throat or stool.

What do I look for?

Most polio infections (90%) have no symptoms or very mild symptoms that can go unrecognized. In people with symptoms, it can include fever, headache, feeling tired and vomiting. With more severe disease, severe muscle pain and stiffness of the neck or back can occur. Paralysis may also occur. Paralysis is usually on one side and occurs 7 to 14 days after infection. Weakness or paralysis that continues past 60 days is usually permanent. Paralysis occurs in less than 1 % of cases. Of those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die due to respiratory failure.

How is it treated?

There are no drugs that cure polio or relieve paralysis. Supportive treatments (rest, fluids and physiotherapy) help relieve the muscle pain during the acute illness and prevent complications caused by muscle paralysis. Ventilators help those with respiratory paralysis to breathe. Long-term care and rehabilitation can help the person cope with permanent disability.

How can I protect myself?

  • Polio is best prevented by vaccination. Vaccination protects 99% of people against polio.
  • See Facts About... Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Polio & Haemophilus Influenza B Vaccines and Facts About... Polio Vaccine.
  • Keep up to date with vaccinations and speak to your doctor/health care provider about your need for other vaccines.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or use hand sanitizer when hands are not visibly dirty.
  • Use good personal hygiene, especially thorough washing of hands after using the toilet and before eating or preparing food.
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow and encourage others to do the same.
  • Wash your hands after handling nose and throat secretions (i.e., after disposal of facial tissues containing nose and throat discharges).
  • Do not share water bottles, straws, eating utensils, cigarettes, toothbrushes, toys or anything else that has been in contact with saliva, nose or throat secretions.
  • If you are ill, stay at home and isolate yourself from others.

August 2016