Is polio making a comeback? Have you gotten your polio vaccinations?

Aug. 17, 2022
young girl getting a polio vaccination.
Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against polio. Source: Getty Images.

After the state of New York announced recently that the virus that causes polio had been detected in wastewater in multiple communities, many people are now asking themselves: “Have I gotten my polio vaccinations?’’

It’s a very good question. Polio can lead to permanent paralysis of the arms and legs, and even death in some cases. The chances of getting polio, however, are low.

Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth, has been concerned that the United States will begin to see more diseases emerge because during the COVID-19 pandemic, people put off routine immunizations, preventative health procedures like mammograms and colonoscopies, and yearly checkups with doctors.

“Our vulnerable population now is higher than it has ever been. There is no argument about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines that we’ve been using over and over,’’ Barron said. “You can have feelings about COVID, but there are a lot of other vaccines that are extremely important, and you need to make sure that you are up to date, whether it is your kids or the adults.’’

The CDC recommends the following vaccines for children and adults.

“While I am passionate about people getting their COVID vaccines, I want to take that out of the equation just a bit for now so people can refocus their energy and say, ‘oh yeah, I haven’t had a tetanus, I really need to get that shingles shot.’

“The beauty of this is that most of these are available almost anywhere – at your local grocery store pharmacy or through your provider, so you don’t have to go to this great effort to get them. All you have to do is go to the store and put it on your list. While you are shopping, stop and say, ‘I’d like to get a vaccine and you can get it done.’

“I think we have put these things off too long. We will suffer for it. We will see other things starting to pop up and people are saying, ‘what, I’ve never seen that.’ Yeah, we never saw it because everybody got vaccinated.’’

A photo of Dr. Michelle Barron
Dr. Michelle Barron

As for the polio vaccine, a glance at Colorado’s school and child care immunization data for 2021 shows that 94.86 percent of school-aged children are vaccinated against polio, which is good news.

Below, Dr. Barron answers questions about polio.

What is polio?

Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. Once inside the body, it can attack the nervous system and cause paralysis in only a few hours.

How is polio transmitted?

It’s an enterovirus, so fecal/oral spread is the most common way that the virus is transmitted. Virus particles found in fecal matter can be spread to the mouth via unwashed hands, or through food or drinks that have been contaminated.

Where is it found?

This is a disease that exists throughout the world, but in the United States it is incredibly rare because of vaccine. As part of your early childhood immunizations, you receive four doses of an inactive polio vaccine (IPV) and this protects you from getting polio. It’s a very good, very effective vaccine that has been around for a very long time.

Is polio a threat in Colorado?

Yes, and no. The answer is, it depends. For individuals who have completed their normal childhood vaccinations – and most people would have met those because it is a requirement by public schools – they will be protected if they are inadvertently exposed.

The man in New York City who contracted polio was unvaccinated, and some of the concern about spread is in communities where vaccination did not occur. There are individuals in Colorado who don’t get their vaccines, and we know this because if you look at our public ranking in terms of how compliant we are with vaccines, Colorado is not at the top of the list. That doesn’t mean we are at the bottom of the list, but there are certainly going to be pockets in Colorado that are at risk.

Are children more susceptible than adults to polio?

They are because most adults have been vaccinated. But polio can affect adults and children. It is not specific to children or adults, but the idea is that adults have been vaccinated so they have that long-term immunity. Whereas children, especially if you are in early age, may still be in the process of getting the vaccine series.

Do we currently have herd immunity with polio?

Polio works on the idea of herd immunity, so the fact that people are exposed and vaccinated, it just keeps your immunity up. Because everyone else has been protected, it doesn’t seem to spread. We’re lucky that that works most of the time, but there are some viruses that you have to have 99% herd immunity to be protected.

What are signs and symptoms?

Some people don’t have any symptoms and most people will develop flu-like symptoms. You might have a mild fever, you might have body aches, you might feel fatigued. You might have some nausea and vomiting, you might have a sore throat. Does all of this sound familiar? That sounds like COVID, that sounds like flu, that sounds like monkeypox. That’s the way it is, your body doesn’t have a dominant response. Where it starts to become problematic is when you start to have neurological symptoms. You can start having numbness and tingling and then you actually can have paralysis from polio. And that’s obviously where it can become dangerous for the individual because once it is in your spinal cord or your central nervous system, you can have long-term impact. Paralysis usually occurs in your legs. It can also affect your lungs, too.

Is there a proven treatment for polio?

No, it’s supportive care. That’s it. Obviously, when there are neurological defects associated with this, it is a long haul to try to get muscles to function again.

What if you don’t know if you’ve gotten your polio vaccinations or not? What should you do?

Ask one of your parents or your caregivers. The rule is that if you went to public school, you were vaccinated unless there was some exception – and most people know that. I guess the question would be for those who are home-schooled. For anyone who went to higher learning, they would have to present documentation of their vaccines, whether it is public schools or colleges. You can check with your physician, too.

How is a dose of vaccine delivered?

It’s a shot. Adults receive three doses. The second dose is one to three months after the first dose; the third dose is six to 12 months after the second.

For children, the CDC recommends that children get four doses of polio vaccine. They should get one dose at each of the following ages: 2 months old, 4 months old, 6 through 18 months old, and 4 through 6 years old.

Is the polio vaccine controversial?

No. Generally, the one that people fight against is measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and the myth that it was associated with autism. If someone was going to opt out of a vaccine, it was MMR and not polio. And there are those people who have taken the approach of no vaccines at all.

What if you don’t know what vaccines you have been given? What should you do?

The best way to keep adults and children free of polio is through safe and effective immunization.

The CDC recommends that children get polio vaccine to protect against polio, or poliomyelitis, as part of the series of routine childhood vaccines. Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) is the only polio vaccine that has been given in the United States since 2000. IPV is given by shot in the leg or arm, depending on the patient’s age. Oral polio vaccine (OPV) is used in other countries.

Most adults in the United States were vaccinated as children and are therefore likely to be protected from getting polio.

Adults who completed their polio vaccinations but who are at increased risk of coming in contact with poliovirus may receive one lifetime IPV booster. Some adults might not have received all recommended doses of either OPV or IPV and therefore might not be sufficiently protected against polio. Adults who are incompletely vaccinated should get or complete their polio vaccinations with IPV.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.