A brother and sister racing each other on the beach with their parents following in the background.

Polio is a serious, contagious disease caused by infection with poliovirus. There are global efforts to eradicate polio.

Did you know?

  • If the poliovirus spreads to the brain and nerves it can lead to permanent paralysis in 1% of cases1.
  • Polio is uncommon in Australia. Although disease incidence is low, it does however remain a risk to travellers to some areas in Africa and Asia where poliovirus transmission still occurs.
  • In some cases the infected person may not have any symptoms but can still spread the virus.
A young man and woman smiling for the camera in a suburban street.

What is it?

Polio (poliomyelitis) is a serious, contagious disease caused by a virus called poliovirus that can lead to long-term disability, paralysis and death.

Australia was certified as being polio free in the year 2000, but people can still catch polio while travelling to countries where polio still occurs and bring it back to Australia.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of polio can appear between 3 and 21 days after catching poliovirus.

Many people who catch poliovirus will have no symptoms, but if symptoms do occur, in mild cases they may be like the flu. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Generally feeling unwell
  • Stiffness of the neck and back
  • Muscle pain
  • Fatigue

A small number of people infected with poliovirus can develop ‘paralytic polio’, a serious complication, within three to four days of infection. Paralytic polio occurs when the virus spreads to the brain and nerves which can result in paralysis, swallowing or breathing problems, fatigue, severe muscle pain and in some cases death.

20-40% of those who get paralytic polio can then go on to develop ‘post-polio syndrome’ (late effects of polio), another rare complication.2 Post-polio syndrome typically develops 15 years or more after the initial illness and symptoms can include fatigue, muscle weakness and pain, and breathing, swallowing or speaking problems.

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following poliovirus infection. Please speak to a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about polio.

How is it spread?

Poliovirus spreads from person to person through contact with stools or less commonly saliva (e.g. sneeze, cough) of an infected person.

A person with polio is most contagious from between 7 and 10 days before symptoms appear, to between 7 and 10 days after symptoms appear. They can continue to spread the virus which is shed in their stools for up to several weeks after catching it.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who has not been immunised against polio may be at higher risk of catching the virus, especially travellers going to countries where polio is still present. Others also at risk include pregnant women, the elderly, the very young, those with a weakened immune system, healthcare workers caring for people with polio, and those who handle live poliovirus in laboratories.

Other people may also be at risk of polio. Please speak to a healthcare professional regarding your individual circumstances.

Prevention and Treatment options

  • Children and Adults

    Practicing good hygiene can help to protect against illness and the spread of germs

    • covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or into your upper sleeve or elbow
    • wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (particularly before handling, preparing or eating food, after visiting the toilet)
    • if no water is available use an alcohol-based hand-rub

    The risk of polio can be reduced through immunisation.

    There is no cure for polio. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and managing the effects of the disease. It can range from relief of pain and fever, to physiotherapy and devices to help you breathe in severe cases.

    Please speak to a healthcare professional for more information about polio prevention and treatment options.

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  • Travellers

    It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss prevention options and travel health.

References

  1. Polio | Better Health Channel.
    https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/polio-immunisation?viewAsPdf=true (accessed October 2020)
  2.  Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). Australian Immunisation Handbook, Australian Government Department of Health, Canberra, 2018, immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au. (accessed October 2020)

PM-AU-AVX-WCNT-190044 Date of GSK Approval: January 2021