Polio: Prevention and risks

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How polio spreads

Polio is highly contagious and can spread easily from person to person.

The poliovirus causes polio, short for poliomyelitis. The virus can live in your throat and digestive system. It enters the body through your mouth, often from food or water that is contaminated with the virus from an infected person. Less commonly, poliovirus can also spread through droplets from a sneeze or cough of an infected person.

A person infected with polio is most contagious during the days immediately before and after symptoms appear. It typically takes 3 to 6 days for symptoms to first appear. People who don't show symptoms can still spread the virus to others.

Canada has been certified polio free since 1994. However, it's possible that polio could return since it still occurs in other countries. For example, someone infected with polio who travels to Canada may infect others who aren't vaccinated against polio.

Preventing polio

Vaccination is the best way to protect ourselves and prevent the spread of polio. In 2019, 92% of 2 year old children in Canada had received all recommended doses of polio vaccine. However, higher polio vaccination rates will help protect people from imported cases of polio from countries where the virus is still circulating.

If you're unsure of your vaccination status, contact your health care provider or local public health authority to find out if you should start a vaccination schedule.

Your child can get the polio vaccine according to the recommended schedule of your province or territory. Your child's vaccinations will usually start at 2 months of age. The inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) used in Canada is a safe and an effective way to prevent polio. It's free and available to everyone in Canada.

In Canada, the polio vaccine is typically given as a combination vaccine as part of routine immunization. For example, the DTaP-HB-IPV-Hib vaccine can protect your baby against polio and:

  • tetanus
  • diphtheria
  • hepatitis B
  • pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)

Vaccination schedules can vary slightly, depending on the province or territory you live in. This means that some provinces or territories will vaccinate at a different age.

Typically, your child will be vaccinated:

  • between birth to 2 months
  • at 4 months
  • at 6 months
  • between 12 months and 18 months
  • between 4 to 6 years of age

If your child has missed a vaccine, contact your healthcare provider right away. They will let you know which vaccines your child needs.

Side effects of this vaccine are usually very mild. Your child may:

  • have a slight fever
  • be fussy
  • be sleepier or have less appetite than usual
  • have redness or soreness where the needle went in (such as the arm or thigh)

These side effects are common. They usually happen 12 to 24 hours after vaccination and go away within a few days.

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Risks of getting polio

Polio infections are more common in children under the age of 5. However, any person who isn't immune to poliovirus, can become infected, no matter their age. This includes those who are:

  • unvaccinated
  • under vaccinated (someone who hasn't received all the recommended vaccine doses)

Polio infections continue to occur worldwide. The risk of getting polio is higher among unvaccinated and under vaccinated individuals who are:

  • travelling to a country where polio is still present
  • in contact with someone who travelled to an affected country

Recommendations for travellers

You can get polio if you travel to a country that has spread of polioviruses. If you're travelling to one of these countries, visit your health care provider at least 6 weeks before you leave. Tell them where you will be travelling and for how long. You and your child may need to get a vaccine booster shot.

Get travel advice and find out if you're travelling to a country where there is a risk of polio

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