Vaccinations: Polio

What is polio? 

Poliomyelitis, better known as polio, is a highly infectious disease that invades the nervous system and can lead to paralysis in the arms, legs, or both. It is caused by a virus in the throat and intestinal tract, and is most often spread when a person comes in contact with the stool of someone who has been infected. It can also spread through oral fluids, contaminated items, water, and uncooked food. Polio is highly contagious. If one person in a household contracts the disease, others in the household are likely to become infected, too. People carrying the virus are most contagious seven to 10 days before and after signs and symptoms appear, but infected individuals can carry the disease in their feces for weeks. 

While polio is best known for causing paralysis and even death, up to 95 percent of people infected with the disease will not have symptoms and may never be aware that they’ve been infected. A small percentage of those infected (about 4–8 percent) will simply feel like they have the flu - experiencing fever, fatigue, nausea, headache, stiffness in their neck and back, and pain in their limbs for up to 10 days. About 1 in 100 people develop weakness or paralysis in their limbs during illness; this condition can be permanent. It can also develop in adulthood, even several decades after the initial illness. Of those who are paralyzed, 5–10 percent die as a result of paralysis of the respiratory muscles.

Why should I vaccinate my child? 

Before polio vaccination began in 1955, 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio were reported each year in the U.S. The disease left thousands of people, many of them children, in braces, crutches, wheelchairs, and iron lungs (tank respirators that helped polio sufferers breathe). Polio’s most famous victim, America’s 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, contracted polio in 1921 (at age 39) and never regained use of his legs. Although polio can sicken people of all ages, it mainly affects children under the age of 5. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) call it the most dreaded childhood disease of the 20th century. 

Fortunately, the polio vaccine is highly effective. Today, polio is almost nonexistent in the U.S. but is still prevalent in other parts of the world including Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. A global eradication campaign is underway, but until the disease has been completely eliminated, the CDC encourages vaccination to prevent a resurgence of polio in the U.S. and worldwide.

How many doses will my child receive? 

The inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) is given as a series of four shots (typically in the thigh), beginning with a primary series of three shots and concluding with a booster shot.

When is the vaccine given? 

According to the CDC, children should get the polio vaccine at: 

  • 2 months of age 
  • 4 months of age 
  • 6 to 18 months of age 
  • 4 to 6 years of age (booster)

What are the possible side effects? 

The vaccine used today isn’t known to cause any serious problems, and most children do not experience any side effects. Some children who receive the vaccine may experience soreness at the injection site. Parents are advised to apply a cool, wet washcloth to the sore area and give acetaminophen or ibuprofen (as directed by the child’s health care provider; dosage for babies is based on a child’s weight not age) for pain.

When should I call a doctor? 

Parents should immediately alert their child’s health care provider if the child experiences difficulty breathing, hoarseness, wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat, or dizziness. Such side effects would likely occur within a few minutes to a few hours of receiving the vaccination. Parents should also contact their child’s health care provider if the child displays unusual behavior or has a high fever (100° F in newborns up to 6 weeks old; 102° F in children ages 6 weeks to 2 years; 103° F or higher in children 2 years or older).

Last updated September 22, 2021

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