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

Globally, healthcare professionals are working to eradicate polio through immunisation. However, cases of this crippling disease can still occur, and immunisation remains important to both help protect children and prevent spread of the disease.

Did you know?

  • If the poliovirus spreads to the brain and nerves it can lead to paralysis.
  • Polio is rare 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.
  • Half of those who survive paralytic polio, a rare complication of poliovirus infection, will have permanent paralysis (loss of the ability to move or feel) in some parts of the body.1
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 your doctor 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 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 can catch polio, especially travellers going to countries where polio is still present. These travellers could bring the virus back to Australia and potentially spread it to others who have not been immunised, which is why it is important that Australia maintains high immunisation levels against polio. 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 your doctor regarding your individual circumstances.

Who should be vaccinated?

  • Polio-containing vaccine is recommended and provided free for children as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). Three doses are given as combination vaccines at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, with a booster given at 4 years of age. Speak to your doctor for more information.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    Diseases Birth 2 months 4 months 6 months 12 months 18 months 4 years 10 to <15 years 15-19 years
    Chickenpox (varicella)+                  
    A second dose of varicella vaccine is recommended any time between 4 years of age and less than 14 years, at least 4 weeks after the first dose. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Diphtheria                  
     
    Hepatitis A+                  
    Two doses of Hepatitis A vaccine are recommended and NIP-funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at 12 months and 18 months living in certain areas. A two-dose schedule (which is not funded) is also recommended for some medically at-risk children and adolescents. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Hepatitis B+                  
    An additional booster vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age for preterm infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation or whose birth weight was under 2000 grams. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Haemophilus influenzae
    type b (Hib)
                     
     
    Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                  
     
    Measles                  
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease+                  
    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Meningococcal B disease+                  
    The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Mumps                  
     
    Pneumococcal disease+                  
    An additional dose of pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and NIP-funded at 6 months of age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Two additional doses (at 6 months and 4 years) are recommended and NIP-funded for medically-at risk children. Further doses may be recommended and funded during adolescence depending on risk – speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Polio                  
     
    Rotavirus                  
     
    Rubella                  
     
    Tetanus                  
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)                  
     
    Annual flu+      
     

     

     

     

     

     
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over. Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years. Learn more about who should receive flu vaccination.
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  • All adults who have not been immunised against polio are recommended to receive poliovirus-containing vaccine. Healthcare workers caring for people with polio and those who handle live poliovirus in laboratories are recommended to receive a booster dose of poliovirus-containing vaccine every 10 years. Speak to your doctor for more information.

  • If you’re travelling overseas to an area where polio is present, a booster dose of poliovirus-containing vaccine is recommended if you haven't received one in the last 10 years.

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

Treatment

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.

Important information

For information about polio immunisation contact your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

References

  1. Polio | Better Health Channel.
    https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/polio-immunisation?viewAsPdf=true (accessed September 2018)
  2. Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition (2017 update). Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health. https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/poliomyelitis (Accessed September 2018)

AUS/VAC/0093/18 Date of Approval: November 2018