Polio 101: Signs, Symptoms and Dangers

Hitting children under 5 the hardest, the worst form of the virus causes nerve damage that can lead to paralysis, difficulty breathing and death. During epidemics in the 20th century, the virus often struck in the hot summer months, sweeping through cities and towns every year or so.

Poliomyelitis was one of the most feared diseases in the world until Dr. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine and tested its safety in 1954.

“In the early 1950s, before polio vaccines were available, polio epidemics caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year” in the United States, noted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United. “Parents were afraid to let their children go outside, especially in the summer when the virus seemed to peak.”

What causes poliomyelitis?

An enterovirus called poliovirus causes poliomyelitis. There are three strains, two of which have been eliminated worldwide, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a WHO program.

However, a wild type of polio virus is still circulating in Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be picked up by travelers and carried around the world. “It only takes one traveler with polio to bring the disease to the United States,” the CDC said.

Transmission can also occur when there are not enough vaccinated children in an area. This usually happens with the oral polio vaccine, created by Dr. Albert Sabin and first used in 1961. The formulation of this vaccine contains a mixture of each of the three types of live attenuated poliovirus strains, according to the GPEI.

Poliovirus identified in London sewage, UK health agency says

“The weakened strains are released by vaccinated children into the environment via their digestive system and can pass from one unvaccinated individual to another, a process exacerbated by poor sanitation systems and the absence of safe drinking water” , said the GPEI.

Once the strain has infected an unvaccinated person, it begins to circulate and can be carried around the world.

That may be a factor in the recent diagnosis of polio in a man from Rockland County, New York, the first case of polio in the United States since 2013, according to the New York State Department of Health.
CDC-confirmed tests have found a type of virus believed to have come from a person who received “the oral polio vaccine (OPV), which is no longer licensed or administered in the United States,” the health department said. in a press release.

“This suggests that the virus may originate from a location outside of the United States where OPV is administered, as (reversed) strains cannot emerge from inactivated vaccines,” the statement said.

Health professionals around the world commonly use different types of oral vaccines to fight poliomyelitis because they are inexpensive, easy to administer, safe, effective, and provide long-lasting protection. However, Salk’s original inactivated polio vaccine, given via a series of vaccines in childhood, is the only version used in the United States since 2000, the CDC said.

Poliomyelitis is highly contagious

Childhood vaccination rates plummeted in kindergartens last year, CDC data shows
The poliomyelitis virus lives in the throat and intestines of an infected person. People with poliovirus, including those who show no symptoms, can spread the highly contagious virus for weeks in their stool. In rare cases, viral transmission can happen via sneeze or cough droplets, the CDC said.

Most people come into contact with polio by picking up a small piece of infected poop and then touching their mouth. Exposure to the virus also occurs when children oral toys or other objects contaminated with feces.

In unsanitary conditions, the virus can also spread through contaminated food and water.

Polio symptoms start like the flu

Like Covid-19, many polio cases are asymptomatic. In fact, people have no symptoms in about 95% of all polio cases, the CDC said.

When symptoms appear, they can take three forms. Flu-like symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, diarrhea, fever, and fatigue are hallmarks of abortive polio.

If these symptoms include additional neurological symptoms, such as sensitivity to light or a stiff neck, the person may have nonparalytic poliomyelitis.

The most dangerous version of polio can cause paralysis within “hours”, the WHO has said. The illness begins with flu-like symptoms, then progresses to muscle pain or spasms and loss of reflexes. Paralysis on one side or the other may follow.

Iron lung patients at a Baltimore hospital are getting televisions for the first time.  Mirrors allow them to watch the broadcasts.
The disease can also affect lungs – between 5% and 10% of people die when their respiratory muscles are immobilized, according to the WHO. During the epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s, patients were often placed in iron lung to help them breathe.
However, statistics have shown that in most cases of paralytic poliomyelitis the person recovers – less than 1% of people who contract poliomyelitis become paralyzed, according to the GPEI. Unfortunately, muscle or joint weakness and pain, breathing and swallowing problems, sleep problems and cold intolerance can persist for life in some cases. The virus can even hide, sleep, and then show up years later in what’s called post-polio syndrome, the CDC said.

Poliomyelitis treatment

There is no cure for poliomyelitis, only treatment to relieve symptoms.

“Heat and physiotherapy (are) used to stimulate the muscles and antispasmodic drugs are given to relax the muscles,” the GPEI said. “While it may improve mobility, it cannot reverse the permanent paralysis from polio.”

Vaccination is the only prevention.

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