Polio: The Disease and The Vaccine

This page provides a brief summary of the disease and the vaccine that is available to prevent it. Links to more detailed information are provided at the bottom of the page.


What is polio?

Polio is a virus which causes fever, vomiting and muscle stiffness. If the nerves are affected it can cause permanent paralysis - that is the loss the use of the muscles. Polio can also paralyse the breathing and swallowing muscles, leading to death.

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How do people get polio?

It is a highly infectious disease spread mainly through close contact with an infected person. Polio virus lives in the throat and the gut. The virus is found in the gut and is spread through the faeces (bowel movements) of an infected person. The virus may be spread due to poor hand washing or water contamination.

The virus found in the throat of an infected person can also be spread through saliva.

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What are the symptoms of polio?

Polio infection may cause mild symptoms or very severe illness. Some people may have no symptoms or may have a headache, feel generally unwell, or develop a fever.  Others may have serious symptoms such as meningitis (where the lining of the brain becomes inflamed) or paralysis (where they lose the use of their muscles) if the infection reaches the central nervous system.  In the worst cases the muscles used for breathing are paralysed, which can be fatal.

Of the people who get polio

  • 1 in 100 will become paralysed.
  • 1 in 10 patients who become paralysed will die.
  • 1 in 2 of those with paralysis who survive will be permanently paralysed.

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Who should get polio vaccine?

Polio is prevented by vaccination.

Polio vaccine is given to all children as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age. The 6 in 1 vaccine protects against Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Hib (haemophilus influenzae b), Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Polio and Tetanus. 

A booster vaccine dose is given at 4-5 years of age (4 in 1 vaccine) which protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Polio and Tetanus.

If your child requires vaccination, or you are unsure of your child’s vaccination status, contact your GP for advice.

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Who should not get polio vaccine?

There are very few people who should not get polio vaccine. Your child should not get the vaccine if they have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the vaccine or any part of the vaccine.

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What to expect after the polio vaccine?

After getting the vaccine, your child may have discomfort, redness or swelling around the area where the injection was given. They may be irritable and have a fever.

If this happens you can give paracetamol or ibuprofen. You should also give them plenty to drink. Make sure your child is not too warm and that clothes are not rubbing against the injection area. 

Children usually recover from these minor side effects within a day or two.

Serious side effects are very rare.

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How does polio vaccine work?

The vaccine stimulates the immune system to build up protection against polio. Infants require three doses of the vaccine to become protected.

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How effective is the polio vaccine?

99% of children become immune to polio when they have completed the recommended vaccine schedule.

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Do cases of polio still happen?

Yes. During 2022, an unvaccinated man in New York, was paralyzed as a result of a polio infection.

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Where can I find out more?

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This page was updated on 22 March 2023