Polio

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. It can strike at any age but affects mainly children under three, representing over 50% of all cases.

The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. Although polio paralysis is the most visible sign of polio infection, fewer than 1% of polio infections ever result in paralysis. However one in 200 infections will lead to irreversible paralysis, usually in the legs. For those paralysed, 5-10% are expected to die when their breathing muscles become immobilised.

The poliovirus can spread widely before cases of paralysis are seen. As most people infected with poliovirus have no signs of illness, they're not usually aware that they've been infected. After initial infection with poliovirus, the virus is shed intermittently in faeces (excrement) for several weeks. During that time, polio can spread rapidly through the community.

The most common symptoms include:

  • decreasing muscle strength and endurance
  • muscle and joint pain
  • breathing, swallowing or speaking difficulties
  • fatigue
  • increased sensitivity to cold or heat
  • breathing difficulty or sleep disturbance

There is now general agreement that in order to minimise the severity of any new symptoms, early assessment and intervention are essential. After a full assessment with a rehabilitation specialist, you may be referred to:

  • a physiotherapist (if you have weakness, pain or mobility problems)
  • a respiratory therapist (if you are having trouble breathing)
  • an orthotist (if you need a brace on your leg)
  • an occupational therapist (if you have trouble functioning at work, at home or in the community)
  • a speech pathologist (if you have trouble speaking or swallowing)
  • a pain clinic (if you have chronic pain)
  • a psychologist (if you have depression or an affected mood)

Source: WHO Global Polio Eradication Initiative