Polio (poliomyelitis)

Polio has disappeared from New Zealand and most parts of the world as a result of immunisation. The Western Pacific region was declared polio free in 2000.

Summary

However, polio is spreading in some overseas countries and could be brought into New Zealand by travellers and immigrants. It’s important that New Zealand children and international travellers continue to be immunised against polio.

Countries where polio is present

Polio has recently spread and is present (as at May 2014) in 10 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Anyone travelling internationally should check with their doctor to see if a polio vaccine booster is recommended.

The 10 countries currently infected are:

  • Afghanistan
  • Cameroon
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Ethiopia
  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Somalia
  • The Syrian Arab Republic.

Illness

Polio is caused by a virus that can lead to a mild or a very serious illness. The virus infects the bowel and from there can attack the nervous system, causing meningitis or paralysis. Most infected people do not have any symptoms.

Children who develop paralysis may appear to recover only to become ill again after a few days. The paralysis is usually permanent.

How it is spread

The virus is found in fluids from the nose and throat and is spread by coughing, sneezing, sharing drink bottles and so on.

It’s also spread by contact with the faeces (poos) of an infected person. This can happen if people don’t wash their hands properly after going to the toilet or changing babies’ nappies.

Symptoms

If you or your child has polio, the symptoms are:

  • headache
  • diarrhoea
  • tiredness
  • stiffness of the neck and back
  • pain in the limbs, back or neck, with or without paralysis.

Prevention

It’s important to protect babies from polio by getting them immunised on time. They’re not protected until they’ve had all 3 doses.

Childhood immunisation

All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against polio as part of their free childhood immunisations at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.

Booster doses are given to children when they’re 4 years old.

Adults who weren’t immunised as children

Polio vaccine is available and funded for adults who have not received their childhood vaccines. You will need 3 doses of polio-containing vaccine. You should wait 8 weeks between the first 2 doses, and have the third dose approximately 12 months later.

Travellers to areas where polio is present

If you’re travelling to an area or country where polio is present – and if it has been more than 10 years since you last had polio vaccine – you should have a booster dose. You’ll need to pay for the cost of the booster.

Vaccines

This disease is covered on the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule. The vaccines used are INFANRIX®- hexa and INFANRIX-IPV™.

The IPOL® vaccine is funded for adults who have not received their childhood immunisations.

Risks associated with polio

  • About 1 in 20 hospitalised patients die and 0.1–2 in 100 patients who survive are permanently paralysed.
  • The overall risk of paralysis is about 1 in 100. This increases with age, eg, for adults it is 1 in 75.
  • There are 2–10 deaths in 100 cases from paralytic polio.
  • Post-polio syndrome (muscle pain and worsening of existing muscle weakness) may occur 30–40 years after polio.

Risks associated with the vaccine

  • No serious reactions have been reported.

Inactivated polio vaccine and oral polio vaccine

There are 2 types of polio vaccine used in the world today.

New Zealand and most other developed countries use the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). This contains dead (inactivated) polio virus – so it can’t cause illness. The vaccine is provided as an injection, usually with other childhood immunisations.

In the past, New Zealand used the oral polio vaccine. Many developing countries still use this vaccine. It contains a live but weakened form of the virus. It is easier to store, transport and administer than the inactivated polio vaccine, and provides longer-lasting immunity. However, the weakened virus can cause polio in about 1 in 750,000 cases. Because of this risk, New Zealand switched to using the inactivated vaccine in 2002.

The World Health Organization plans to withdraw the oral polio vaccine worldwide when polio nears global elimination.


Immunisation is your choice. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or practice nurse or call the Immunisation Advisory Centre free helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).

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