Polio is a highly contagious disease which has infected and continues to infect an innumerable number of people. Unhygienic conditions, lack of sanitation, and polluted waters all contribute to the transmission of poliovirus. In addition, densely populated communities and weak health systems which are unable to consistently deliver routine immunization, can cause the virus to spread and infect swiftly.
Once a person is infected, the virus will replicate rapidly in the intestines. The infected individual will then act as a vector for the disease, carrying and transmitting it for up to six weeks. Polio is highly contagious – and added to the long time the virus stays active inside the host – the rate of infections is very high. The rate of secondary infections in susceptible households, or close contacts, is also very great, greater than 90 percent in fact. This often means that if a child is infected with polio, other children in the same household may also be infected.
We have understood that polio is a disease which grows and spreads rapidly, but what happens to the infected persons?
Contracting this virus results in the death of cells and in extreme cases paralysis. The paralysis is associated with diminished or a complete loss of reflexes, but sensations and feelings will sometimes remain intact. The extent of the paralysis varies, depending on the area of the spinal cord damaged by the polio virus and the number of nerve cells affected. In the absolute worst cases, children can be paralyzed in the chest. No longer able to breathe by themselves, these children are trapped inside large cold metal tubes, which mechanically breathe for them. Such contraptions are called iron lungs.
Paralysis develops in approximately one of every 200 children after exposure to the virus. This is followed, in most cases, by permanent disability. Five to ten percent of patients with paralytic polio will have a fatal outcome.
How are people infected with polio treated?
Polio is a disease which has no cure. Fortunately, due to advancement in medicine, prevention is feasible and hopefully in the future, eradication will be possible, so that no son, daughter, or child will ever have to suffer from polio ever again. There is no specific treatment for people who have become infected. As such, treatment is focused on easing symptoms, increasing comfort, speeding recovery and preventing complications. Supportive measures include: Pain relievers and Portable ventilators to assist breathing.
Is the eradication of polio possible?
Most diseases and viruses are impossible to eradicate, due to the nature of the causative agent. Till now only one disease has been eradicated, smallpox. Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, and was responsible for the untimely death of 500 million people.
In the upcoming articles, I hope to answer a number of questions.
- Which characteristics does polio share with smallpox which allows for the dream of eradicating a microbe to become a reality?
- How can we identify, prevent, and eradicate polio?
- Why is it that after 40 years of advancements in the field of medicine and virology, we are still struggling to eradicate poliovirus?
- And what does a polio-free world look like?