Last updated:11-01-2009
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Definition and causes

Polio, also known as child paralysis is a viral disease that affects specific neurons in the spinal cord. The muscles that are controlled by these nerve cells are consequently paralyzed. A major polio epidemic occurred in the 1950's in which many, particularly children, became infected by polio. Today, there are still adults with severe handicaps from that polio epidemic. Vaccination against polio is now a part of childhood immunization program (see Children Immunization) and polio is now extinct in western countries but still found in less developed countries.
Polio is highly contagious spreading form carriers of the disease and via food and drinking water polluted with the polio virus.

Symptoms of polio

Most people infected with polio will have no or only very minor symptoms of mild fever, sore throat or a stomach ache. For those who develop severe symptoms the incubation time from the moment of infection to the emergence of the symptoms is around one week. The symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of meningitis (inflammation of the brain membrane) with fever, headache and stiffness of neck and back. In a few days paralysis of the muscles in the back, arms and legs might occur. In addition, many experience pain in the paralyzed muscles. In severe cases breathing is affected with the paralysis of the muscle groups controlling the breathing. 

Complications of polio

Polio can be life-threatening if the breathing muscles are affected. If paralysis persists after 2 months from the outbreak of the disease, they will often be permanent. By permanent paralysis there is a risk that the tissue around the paralyzed muscles contract resulting in joint position distortion of the connected joints. However, in most patients the paralysis will ease or disappear partially or fully over time. 
Many years after a person has had polio, sudden renewed symptoms might arise with weakness and pain in the muscles that were involved in the first outbreak. This condition is called post polio syndrome.

Precautions and diagnosis

Persons not vaccinated against polio should examine whether there is a risk of infection with polio before traveling to destinations where polio is not extinct and be vaccinated before departure if affirmative. If the above symptoms give rise to polio suspicion in non vaccinated persons the doctor should be consulted right away.
The diagnosis of polio include examining of stool (faeces), secretions from the throat or test of the spinal cord fluid for detection of the polio virus.

Treatment of polio

There is no treatment that can cure polio. Only the symptoms can be treated: 
  • Respirator: may be necessary if the breathing muscle is paralyzed.
  • Physiotherapy: It is important to avoid that the paralyzed muscles become rigid and the physiotherapy exercise program should include both active and passive body mobilization. If the muscles are not completely paralyzed the physiotherapy rehabilitation often show good results and may lead to full recovery.
  • Braces: Different types of braces are used to support joints where the muscles are very weak.
  • Surgery: It may be necessary to operate to fix parts, for example the spine, where the paralysis has resulted in collapse or malfunction.

Prevention of polio

In developed countries vaccination against polio is part of the childhood immunization program.  

Related articles:

Abscess in the brain - Brain abscess
Encephalitis - Brain inflammation
Meningitis - Hindelang brain inflammation
Polio (Poliomyelitis, Poliomyelitis)



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