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The Polio Vaccine: Health 101

The polio vaccine protects your child from polio, a very contagious disease that can lead to paralysis. It usually affects children under age 5. Though the disease has essentially been eliminated from the U.S. after more than five decades of vaccination, it was very dangerous to children (and frightening to parents) during its peak in the 1950s.

Polio viruses are usually found in the throat and the digestive tract and may be easily passed from person to person. Up to 95 percent of people who become infected with polio will have no symptoms; up to eight percent of infected people will experience minor side effects like fever, fatigue, nausea, stiffness in the neck and back. However, in less than one percent of cases, the germs can spread to the nervous system and cause serious conditions like paralysis and even death.

The polio vaccine schedule includes a shot at each of 2, 4, and 6 to 18 months and a fourth one between 4 and 6 years. The fourth dose isn't needed if your child gets the third dose after he's 4.

The version used today, called IPV (Inactivated Polio Vaccine) contains non-living strains of the virus. The oral version of the polio vaccine (OPV) is no longer available in the U.S. because it can actually cause polio in extremely rare cases (about 1 in 2.4 million), though it is still used in other parts of the world.

The polio vaccine is safe to be given along with other vaccines. It is also available as part of the DTaP and hepatitis B combination vaccine.

While the polio vaccine is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended childhood vaccinations, people who fall into the following categories should not receive it:

  • Kids who've had a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics streptomycin, polymyxin B, or neomycin or to a previous polio shot.
  • Anyone who's pregnant (although it's been shown to be safe for pregnant women at an increased risk of exposure like those traveling to an area outside the U.S. that's had a recent outbreak).
  • Kids who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the polio vaccine is safe for you or your child.

Contracting polio is far more dangerous than any side effects from the vaccine. Though allergic reactions are possible, the polio vaccine generally only causes mild side effects, like redness, swelling, or warmth near the injection site.

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after he receives a shot, call your doctor right away.

Because polio has pretty much disappeared from the United States, some people may think that getting vaccinated is no longer necessary. Unfortunately, just because polio is no longer widespread here doesn't mean we're completely immune. Here's why: In very, very rare cases the oral version of the polio vaccine actually causes polio. Although this version is no longer available in the U.S., it's still used in other countries. "Almost all of the cases of polio that we see in the U.S. today come from unvaccinated people exposed to the virus from those who received the oral vaccine in another country," says Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and American Baby magazine advisory board member. "Someone with the disease just has to walk right into the country to cause an outbreak, which makes it important to continue to vaccinate against it."

Sources: Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Baby magazine advisory board member. Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases. Medline Plus: a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health section on Polio Vaccination. CDC sections on Polio Vaccination.


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