Hesperian Health Guides

Basic Questions and Answers About Polio

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Paralysis in one leg

How common is it? In many countries, polio—or ‘poliomyelitis’— was for many years the most common cause of physical disability in children. In some areas, one of every 100 persons may have had some paralysis from polio. Vaccination programs have ended polio in most countries, but it is still a problem in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

What causes it? A virus (infection). The infection attacks parts of the spinal cord, where it damages only the nerves that control movement. In areas with poor hygiene and lack of latrines, the polio infection spreads when the stool (shit) of a sick child reaches the mouth of a healthy child. Where sanitation is better, polio spreads mostly through coughing and sneezing.

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Severe paralysis
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Do all children who become infected with the polio virus become paralyzed? No, only a small percentage become paralyzed, about 1 out of every 100 to 150 children who are exposed to the virus. Most only get what looks like a bad cold, with fever, vomiting or diarrhea.

Is the paralysis contagious? No, not after 2 weeks from when a child first gets sick with polio. In fact, most polio is spread through the stool of non-paralyzed children who have ‘only a cold’ caused by the polio virus.

At what age do children get polio? In areas with poor sanitation, polio most often attacks babies from 8 to 24 months old, but occasionally children up to age 4 or 5. As sanitation improves, polio tends to strike older children and even young adults.

Who does it most often affect? Boys, a little more than girls. Unvaccinated children much more often than vaccinated children, especially those living in crowded, unsanitary conditions.

How does the paralysis begin? It begins after signs of a cold and fever, sometimes with diarrhea or vomiting. After a few days the neck becomes stiff and painful and parts of the body become limp. Parents may notice the weakness right away, or only after the child recovers from the acute illness.

Once a child is paralyzed, what changes or improvements can be expected? Often the paralysis will gradually go away, partly or completely. Any paralysis left after 7 months is usually permanent. The paralysis will not get worse. However, certain secondary problems may develop—especially if precautions are not taken to prevent them.

What are the child’s chances of leading a happy, productive life? Usually very good— provided the child is encouraged to do things for himself, to get the most out of school, and to learn useful skills within his physical limitations.

Can a person with polio marry and have normal children? Yes. Polio is not inherited (familial) and does not affect ability to have children.

This page was updated:21 Nov 2019