What is poliomyelitis?
Poliomyelitis is a contagious infection caused by the poliovirus, which is transmitted through contact with the fecal matter or saliva of an infected person. Once the virus enters the body through the gastrointestinal tract, it multiplies rapidly in the intestines.
Children under 5 years old are most susceptible to contracting the poliovirus because they often put potentially contaminated objects into their mouths. That’s why experts recommend that infants and young children start their vaccination regime as soon as possible.
Approximately 1 in 4 polio patients display flu-like symptoms for up to five days (before they clear up on their own). Common non-paralytic signs include:
The virus can survive in the patient’s system for up to two weeks after symptoms first appear – making them highly contagious during this period. While more than 70 percent of infected individuals don’t show any signs of having it, they could still pass it on to others.
At its peak, polio was also referred to as infantile paralysis or “the crippler.” In severe cases, it’s capable of infecting the brain, nerves, and spinal cord, producing paralytic symptoms such as:
- Numbness or tingling (like a pins and needles sensation) in the limbs
- Paralysis of the limbs or intense muscle weakness, which could be fatal if it affects breathing muscles
- Meningitis, or infection of the brain and spinal column (another possibly fatal complication)
Other long-term medical issues, including post-polio syndrome, may cause persistent muscle pain, stiffness, or eventual paralysis.
Fortunately, international efforts to eradicate polio lowered the number of reported cases by more than 99 percent since 1988. Though rare, the poliovirus remains active in certain parts of the world with poor sanitation systems. The shortage of clean water to drink, cook with, or maintain personal hygiene encourages its transmission.
To this day, there’s still no cure for polio, but the vaccine is proving to be incredibly effective at preventing new outbreaks. No new natural cases in Europe or the Americas (where the polio vaccine is widely distributed) have been reported for several decades.
Before traveling to any regions where polio is still present (namely, Afghanistan and Pakistan), be sure to get up-to-date on all your vaccinations.