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Poliomyelitis (polio)


    Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious viral disease that largely affects children under 5 years of age. The virus is transmitted by person-to-person spread mainly through the faecal-oral route or, less frequently, by a common vehicle (e.g. contaminated water or food) and multiplies in the intestine, from where it can invade the nervous system and cause paralysis.

    In 1988, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the worldwide eradication of polio, marking the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, and later joined by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. 

    Wild poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350 000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries to 6 reported cases in 2021. Of the 3 strains of wild poliovirus (type 1, type 2 and type 3), wild poliovirus type 2 was eradicated in 1999 and wild poliovirus type 3 was eradicated in 2020. As at 2022, endemic wild poliovirus type 1 remains in two countries:  Pakistan and Afghanistan.


    Poliovirus is highly infectious. The incubation period is usually 7–10 days but can range from 4–35 days. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine.  It then invades the nervous system. Up to 90% of those infected experience no or mild symptoms and the disease usually goes unrecognized. In others, initial symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck, and pain in the limbs. These symptoms usually last for 2–10 days and most recovery is complete in almost all cases.  However, in the remaining proportion of cases the virus causes paralysis, usually of the legs, which is most often permanent.  Paralysis can occur as rapidly as within a few hours of infection. Of those paralysed, 5-10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

    The virus is shed by infected people (usually children) through faeces, where it can spread quickly, especially in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation systems.


    There is no cure for polio; it can only be prevented by immunization. The polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life. More than 20 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have been paralysed, since 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. An estimated 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented through the systematic administration of vitamin A during polio immunization activities.

    Treatments for polio focus on limiting and alleviating symptoms. Heat and physical therapy can be used to stimulate the muscles and antispasmodic drugs are used to relax the effected muscles. This can improve mobility but does not reverse permanent polio paralysis.

    Vaccination is crucial in the fight against polio. Failure to implement strategic approaches leads to ongoing transmission of the virus. Endemic transmission of wild poliovirus is continuing to cause cases in border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Failure to stop polio in these last remaining areas could result in as many as 200 000 new cases every year within 10 years, all over the world. That is why it is critical to ensure polio is eradicated completely, once and for all.


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    Latest publications

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    Fifteenth Meeting of the WHO South-East Asia Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication

    The WHO South-East (SE) Asia Region was certified polio-free by the South-East Asia Regional Certification Commission for Poliomyelitis Eradication (SEA-RCCPE)...

    Standard operating procedures: responding to a poliovirus event or outbreak, version 4

    In May 2014, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the international spread of wild poliovirus a Public Health Emergency...

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    The Planning and Budgeting Tool for Vaccine-Preventable Disease Surveillance in Priority Countries for Polio Transition aims to provide...

    Role of the polio network in COVID-19 vaccine delivery and essential immunization, Lessons learned for successful transition

    Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the public health agenda. The new virus revealed major gaps in health systems at the national...

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