Polio (poliomyelitis)

Polio is a viral disease that can cause paralysis and death. Anyone can get polio if they are not vaccinated and travel to a part of the world where polio still exists. Vaccination is the best protection against polio.

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What is polio?

Polio is short for poliomyelitis. It is a serious viral disease that can lead to long-term disability, paralysis and death.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is an international plan to eliminate polio from every country in the world. Australia has been officially polio-free since 2000. Polio is present in only a few countries in the world.

Polio is caused by the poliovirus.

What are the symptoms of polio?

Most people who come into contact with polio do not have any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they include:

  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fatigue
  • stiffness in the back and neck
  • muscle pain, often severe
  • paralysis.

Symptoms usually start about three to 35 days after catching polio. Most people make a complete recovery, but some people develop life-long disability. Damage to some muscles can mean you can’t breathe or swallow properly anymore. Damage to nerves may cause other long-term effects, including:

  • losing strength
  • running out of energy
  • breathing, swallowing or speaking difficulties
  • pain in muscles and joints.

Who is at risk from polio?

Anyone who is not immunised against polio is at risk from contracting the disease, particularly if they travel to a country where people still have polio. These people could bring the virus back to Australia and potentially spread it to people who are not immunised. This is why it is important that Australia maintains high immunisation levels against polio.

How do you get polio?

Polio spreads when people come into contact with infected faeces, usually in an area with poor cleanliness. It can also be spread if you come in contact with infected saliva, but this is less common.

How do you prevent polio?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against polio.

Polio vaccines protect you from getting infected and prevent serious disease. For more information on polio immunisation, see Polio immunisation service.

How do you know if you have polio?

If you think you or one of your family members has polio, see your doctor.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and if you have travelled to an area where polio still exists. If your doctor thinks you have polio, they can do tests to confirm their diagnosis.

How do you get treated for polio?

There are no medicines for polio, but good physiotherapy may help with recovery. The small number of people who get paralysis need to go to hospital and may need intensive care.

Some people will need long-term treatment for limb paralysis.

More information

Contacts

If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our How do I immunise my child? page or our main Immunisation contacts page.

Page last updated: 01 Mar 2018