Here’s what you need to know
According to the CDC, no cases of polio have been reported in the United States since 1979. However, the disease was brought into the country by travelers, and the last known case of polio in the United States was in 2013.
Jill Foster, MD, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota Medical School, compares the effects of polio on the body to damaged wiring in an electrical box in your basement.
Once polio runs through the “wires,” which he uses as a metaphor for nerves, “it breaks the wires and there’s no nerve signal going to the muscles, and your muscles stop working,” says Foster.
Polio is spread through the feces of an infected person or through droplets from a sneeze or cough, which is less common, according to the CDC. Other routes of transmission include:
- Picking up small pieces of stool from a sick person and putting it in your mouth
- Putting things in your mouth contaminated with the feces of a sick person
Serious complications of polio include meningitis, infection of the spinal cord and/or meninges, and paralysis, the inability to move parts of the body, the agency said. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the virus and only treating the symptoms.
According to the New York State Department of Health, a confirmed case last month in Rockland County, New York, involved an unvaccinated adult who developed severe symptoms, including paralysis, and was hospitalized.
But what does all this mean for you? Foster says it depends on your vaccination status.
Here are his answers to the most frequently asked questions about polio on the Internet:
A doctor answered your questions about poliomyelitis
How worried should I be about polio right now? Am I taking a risk?
The good news is that if you’ve had the polio vaccine, there’s nothing to worry about unless your immune system is compromised, Foster says.
He recommends that people who are immunocompromised consult their doctor, who may then recommend testing for antibody levels. The results can help decide whether or not to get polio drugs.
Practicing good hand hygiene, such as washing your hands before eating, is a great way to give yourself extra protection, she adds.
“The primary route of transmission of polio is fecal, oral, so I think everything we’ve been doing since the pandemic has been a really good thing,” Foster said. “It also protects against polio.”
If you are not fully vaccinated against polio, you are at risk of contracting the disease, he notes. This also includes children under one year of age, especially children under 6 months; They may have some protection from early vaccines, but they are not fully vaccinated against polio, Foster said.
The CDC recommends that children receive four doses of the polio vaccine, one dose at the following ages: two months, four months, six to 18 months, and four to six years of age.
“If I was a baby living in New York who only got a shot or two and was around people who didn’t wash their hands and didn’t get vaccinated, I would be worried,” Foster said.
Have I received the polio vaccine? If not, can I get a new vaccine?
If your childhood vaccination records are available to you, you should search for “IPV” for them. With the four doses of BPI listed in your records, you can get the best protection against polio.
“If they have BTI on their vaccine record, they’re fine,” Foster says, “Some people actually look up the words ‘polio’ and it doesn’t say that.”
Depending on where you were born or where you lived when you got your vaccine, the “OPV” in your shots may be the oral polio vaccine. According to the CDC, several countries administer oral polio vaccines.
If you can’t get your childhood immunization records and want to get your polio shots for extra protection, Foster says there’s no harm in doing so.
I was vaccinated as a child, but can I get a booster?
Foster said polio vaccines are not currently recommended for people who received them as children. Officials believe the immunity will last too long, he adds.
With the small number of cases, Foster doesn’t think polio drugs are recommended. However, that could change depending on how widespread polio is in the United States, he said.
“I think people at the CDC are talking about it. Now that we’re finding that there’s a lot more circulation than people think,” Foster says, “It could come in geographic areas that we know have water.”
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