Fast facts about poliomyelitis (polio)

What you need to know and learn

09 September 2020

The polio virus is very dangerous and highly infectious, can cause paralysis and in some cases, it can cause death.

Polio-affected areas are some of the most marginalized and underserved communities in the world, who often lack access to essential services such as water and health care.

To eliminate polio completely, every child in every household must be vaccinated.

Polio is a highly contagious virus

Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. Polio is spread through person-to-person contact and invades the nervous system which can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours. 

The wild poliovirus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine where it then invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis. It is then shed into the environment through the faeces where it can spread rapidly through a community, especially in situations of poor hygiene and sanitation.

People most at risk

Polio can strike at any age, but it mainly affects children under five years of age.
Polio is most often spread from poor hygiene practices. This includes poor handwashing practices and ingestion of food or water that is contaminated by faeces. Infants and young children who are not yet toilet-trained are often a ready source of transmission. 

Signs and symptoms of Polio

  • Most people infected with the poliovirus have no signs of illness and are never aware they have been infected. These symptomless people carry the virus in their intestines and can ‘silently’ spread the infection to thousands of others before the first case of polio paralysis emerges. For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) considers just a single confirmed case of polio paralysis to be evidence of an epidemic – particularly in countries where very few cases occur.
  • Polio disease may cause mild or very severe symptoms. Some people may have no symptoms, a mild headache, a general feeling of being unwell or a fever.
  • Others may have serious symptoms such as meningitis (where the lining of the brain becomes inflamed) or paralysis if the infection reaches the central nervous system.
  • In the worst cases the muscle used for breathing become paralyzed, which can be fatal. Symptoms are usually classified into non-paralytic and paralytic symptoms.


Unlike most diseases, polio can be completely eradicated.

There is no cure for polio, the only way to protect your children against polio is to vaccinate them with a multiple dose of the vaccine.

The vaccines are safe and effective. 

The virus cannot survive for long periods outside of the human body. If the virus cannot find an unvaccinated person to infect, it will die out.  If a sufficient number of children are fully immunized against polio, the virus is unable to find susceptible children to infect and will die out.

The oral polio vaccine (OPV) can be administered easily and can protect a child for life.  But as long as a single child remains infected, all children not vaccinated are at risk. Failure to eradicate just one confirmed case of polio could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year according to WHO. 

COVID-19 is disrupting life-saving immunization services

Routine childhood immunization services were substantially disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic putting millions of children at risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases.
The reasons for disrupted services vary. Some parents were reluctant to leave home because of restrictions on movement, lack of information or for fear of catching the COVID-19 virus.
Is it safe for parents to get their children vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer is yes. It is important that infants and young children keep their vaccinations up to date because they protect them from deadly diseases. It means that when children can return to interacting with other children, they’ll have protection.