Everything You Need to Know About Polio

World Polio Day is observed every year on 24 October to commemorate the birth of Jonas Salk, the American virologist who helped create the world’s first safe and effective polio vaccine. Salk’s vaccine was invented in 1955 but it was with the establishment of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988 by the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International and others that the global determination to eradicate polio was bolstered.

Since the founding of the GPEI in 1988, polio has been successfully eradicated from most parts of the world, including India which achieved polio eradication in 2014. As of August 2020, Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the only two nations with the continued transmission of wild poliovirus. Here is everything you need to know about this disease that humankind has almost successfully conquered.

What is polio?

The WHO defines polio or poliomyelitis as a highly infectious viral disease that is transmitted from person to person mainly through the fecal-oral route and, less frequently, through contaminated water or food. The infection mostly affects children under the age of 5 years but can be contracted by unvaccinated adults too.

The poliovirus enters the body through the mouth or the respiratory system and multiplies in the throat and intestines. From these areas, the virus travels to other organs of the body and affects the central nervous system, thereby causing a number of debilitating symptoms including paralysis and death in severe cases.

Symptoms of polio

The Cleveland Clinic says that around 72% of people infected with polio do not experience any symptoms. Around 25% of those infected have flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, nausea, headache, fatigue and body ache. The remaining few number of patients may have more severe symptoms of polio, such as the following:

  • Paresthesia – the feeling of pins and needles in the arms and legs
  • Meningitis – infection in the coverings of the brain and the spinal cord
  • Paralysis – the reduction or absence of the ability to move the legs, arms and breathing muscles

Diagnosis of polio

Since the majority of symptoms of polio resemble those of other viral infections, the proper diagnosis can be done only after ruling them out. If your doctor suspects you have polio, stool specimens and throat swab will have to be collected and examined. If the infection is too severe then a lumbar puncture to collect cerebrospinal fluid may be conducted.

Treatment of polio

The polio vaccine is given to children to prevent the viral infection from ever taking root, primarily because there is no cure for polio. If a person does contract polio, the treatment would be similar to other viral infections. This means taking pain killers and medications to reduce fever and body ache, increased intake of fluids, bed rest to manage the mild flu-like symptoms and physical therapy to improve muscle mobility in those at risk of disability and paralysis. Those who have difficulty breathing may require ventilation support.

For more information, read our article on Polio.

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