Polio – a dangerous infectious disease | Knowledge & Environment | DW

Polio does not only affect children, even if the name polio would suggest it. The term comes from the fact that polio was widespread around the world until the 1960s, and many contracted the virus as children, some before the age of five. In 1962, the campaign “Vaccination by oral route is sweet – polio is cruel” started in Germany. Children have since been vaccinated across the board.

How is polio transmitted?

The disease is transmitted by poliovirus. This usually happens via fecal-oral smear infection from person to person. The virus, which is excreted in the stool, enters the body through the mouth, for example through hands, food or water. It gets into the gastrointestinal tract, from there into the blood vessels and finally into the nerve cells. Even the smallest drops of saliva can transmit polioviruses, for example through the mouth or nose. Polio is highly contagious.

The infectious disease is currently still found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In these countries, there is still no nationwide vaccination. This is how the virus can spread easily.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms are fever, nausea, headache. In so-called abortive poliomyelitis, cells of the central nervous system are not affected. In the case of paralytic poliomyelitis, symptoms of paralysis appear after about two to three days. This form of the disease occurs mainly in children, often asymmetrically: left leg, right arm and right leg, left arm. 95 percent of people who contract the polio virus show no symptoms. You carry the virus in your body, but don’t notice it and develop antibodies, so you become immune.

The poliovirus can cause tissue damage

What are the effects?

Sometimes the paralysis resolves itself within a year. In the worst case, however, long-term, irreversible damage occurs. Then the bones are deformed, growth disorders occur in children and as this severe form of polio progresses, those affected suffer from severe muscle pain and, in many cases, muscle atrophy. Difficulty breathing and swallowing can also occur.

How is polio treated?

As late as the middle of the last century, people suffering from polio were put in the so-called iron lung if they had difficulty breathing. It was the first clinical device that could artificially ventilate patients. Only vaccination offers reliable protection. In Germany it has been administered since the early 1960s, initially as an oral vaccination, but now in the form of an injection. There is still no drug that could be used to treat polio.

What is Post Polio Syndrome?

Many of those who suffered from polio as children have been symptom-free for years. However, the disease can come back in the form of post-polio syndrome. In Germany alone, around 70,000 people are affected. After some 40 years, they develop the symptoms typical of this disease, such as paralysis and the associated complaints.

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