‘Have I been vaccinated against polio?’ and other questions, answered

This is what you need to know

There have been no cases of polio in the US since 1979, according to the CDC. But cases have been brought to the country by travelers, and the last known case of polio in the US was discovered in 2013.

Jill Foster, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota Medical School, likens the effects of polio on the body to those of damaged wires in the electrical box in your basement.

After polio travels through the “wiring,” which she uses as a metaphor for nerves, “it destroys the wiring, and so you don’t get a nerve signal to your muscles and your muscles just stop working,” Foster says.

Polio spreads through contact with an infected person’s stool or droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough, which is less common, according to the CDC. Other ways you can contract the disease include:

  • Picking up small pieces of the infected person’s feces on your hands and touching your mouth
  • Putting objects contaminated with the feces of an infected person in your mouth

The serious consequences of polio include meningitis, an infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain, and paralysis, the inability to move certain parts of the body, the agency says. And unfortunately there is no cure for the virus and only treatment for symptoms.

Last month’s confirmed case in Rockland County, New York, occurred in an unvaccinated adult who developed severe symptoms, including paralysis, and was hospitalized, according to the New York State Health Department.

But what does all this mean for you? Well, it depends on your vaccination status, according to Foster.

Here are her answers to some of the most common questions people search online about polio:

Your questions about polio, answered by a doctor

How concerned should I be about polio now? Am I in danger?

The good news is that if you’re vaccinated against polio, you don’t have to worry unless you’re immunocompromised, Foster says.

She recommends that immunocompromised individuals see their doctor, who may then suggest checking their antibody levels. The results will help decide whether or not to get a polio booster.

Practicing good hand hygiene, such as washing your hands before eating, is also a great way to protect yourself, she adds.

“The main way polio is transmitted is fecal, oral, so all the things we’ve done since the start of the pandemic I think is a really good thing,” Foster says. “And that will also protect against polio.”

If you’re not fully vaccinated against polio, you’re most at risk of contracting the disease, she notes. This also includes children under one year of age, especially infants under 6 months of age; while they may have some protection from initial vaccines, they’re not yet fully immunized against polio, Foster says.

The CDC recommends that children receive four doses of the polio vaccine, with one dose at the following ages: two months, four months, between six months and 18 months, and between four and six years of age.

“I would be concerned if I had a baby who lived in New York and only had one or two injections and then was around people who didn’t wash their hands and weren’t vaccinated,” Foster says.

How do I know if I have been vaccinated against polio? Can I get a new vaccine just in case?

If your childhood immunization records are available to you, search them for “IPV,” which stands for inactivated polio vaccine. With four doses of IPV in your records, you are well protected against polio.

“If they have IPV on their vaccination record, then they’re good,” Foster says, “Some people go looking for the words that actually say ‘polio’ and it won’t say it.”

Depending on where you were born or where you lived when you got your vaccines, “OPV” may be listed on your admissions records, which is the oral polio vaccine. According to the CDC, several countries administer oral polio vaccines.

If you don’t have access to your childhood vaccination records and want to get your polio vaccines for added protection, Foster says there’s no harm in doing so.

I was vaccinated as a child, but can I get a booster?

At this time, polio boosters are not recommended for people who received their first vaccines as children, Foster says. Officials believe that immunity lasts a very long time, she adds.

With a low case count, Foster does not foresee polio boosters to be recommended unless there is a rise. However, this may change depending on how widespread polio spreads in the US, she notes.

“I think the folks at the CDC are talking about it. Now that we’re finding out that there’s a wider distribution, more than people thought,” Foster says, “it could be coming to certain regions that we know is in the water.”

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