Polio is a viral infection that affects the immune and nervous systems, causing nerve damage or paralysis (loss of ability to move). In some cases, it can lead to death. It is more common in children under the age of five. However, people of all ages who are not vaccinated against the disease or have not gotten all the recommended vaccine doses are at risk. There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented through vaccination.

Canada has been polio-free for the last 20 years. In 1994, Canada was certified as being free of wild poliovirus by the World Health Organization and as long as polio exists in other countries, there is still a risk of getting it. Getting vaccinated against polio provides the best protection against the virus.

If you are planning to travel to an area where the virus is known or suspected to be spreading, speak to a health care provider to find out what you can do to protect yourself and prevent the spread of polio. The inactivated poliomyelitis vaccines (IPV) are the only polio vaccines available in Canada. They protect against three strains of polio. IPV is given as a needle. It works very well. After a primary series of three doses 95% of people have protection and following a booster dose close to 100%. Oral polio virus vaccines (OPV) are still used in many countries around the world. Since 2016, the OPV protects against only 2 strains of poliovirus.

Children who received an oral polio vaccine outside of Canada on or after April 1, 2016 will need to receive full vaccination with the inactivated polio vaccine to get the best protection for all 3 polio strains that are still spreading around the world.

Polio is caused by the polio virus which can spread easily to others through:

  • Coming in contact with the stool (poop) of an infected person through the mouth. For example, eating food or drinking water that is contaminated.
  • Close contact with respiratory droplets from an infected person’s nose and throat, such as from talking, coughing or sneezing.
  • Direct contact with contaminated objects or stool.

An infected person can spread the virus to others before symptoms appear and for as long as the virus is shed in the throat and/or stool. People who do not have symptoms can still pass the virus to others.

Most people who have the polio virus will not have any symptoms. About one out of four people will have flu-like symptoms that can include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach upset, including nausea and/or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Feeling tired
  • Weakness
  • Severe muscle pain
  • Stiff neck or back

These symptoms usually last two to ten days, and then go away on their own. In rare cases, the disease affects the spinal cord or brain and can cause meningitis (infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain), paralysis (loss of ability to move) and sometimes may lead to death.

Getting vaccinated against polio is safe and the best way to protect yourself against the disease. In Canada, polio vaccination is part of Ontario’s Publicly Funded Routine Immunization Schedule . In Ontario, the DTap-IPV-Hib vaccine is given to protect against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (Hib) and polio. Five doses are given at two, four, six and 18 months of age, and a booster vaccine (e.g. Tdap-IPV) is given at four to six years of age.

Vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus and polio is required by law under Ontario’s Immunization of School Pupils Act (ISPA)  and the Child Care & Early Years Act for children attending school or child care in Ontario, unless they have a valid exemption .

If your child misses a vaccine or is due for their next dose, they can get it at a health care provider’s office. Students in junior kindergarten through to grade 12 can also receive vaccines at one of the Toronto Public Health’s vaccine community clinics

Adults 18 years of age and older or new to Canada who missed the polio vaccine as a child or are not sure of their polio vaccination status a should get three doses of IPV. People who are at a higher risk of exposure to polio due to travel should follow advice for travellers for the best protection.

If you think you have polio, it is important to:

  • Self-isolate and avoid close contact with others
  • Call before visiting a clinic or hospital so they can prepare for your arrival and prevent virus spread
  • Wear a well-fitting, high quality mask when seeking medical attention
  • Wash your hands with soap and water often
  • Monitor for signs and symptoms so you can reduce your risk of exposing others
  • Avoid sharing your bathroom with others, as well as clean and disinfect your bathroom regularly
  • Avoid preparing food for others
  • Individuals who are exposed may be eligible for a polio booster dose

 Your health care provider will assess you for polio and will test you if they suspect you have polio.

Anyone who has not been fully vaccinated against polio or is a close contact of somebody with polio may have to stay home and isolate if notified by Toronto Public Health. Canada is certified as polio-free, and even one case of polio is considered a public health emergency.

Polio is diagnosed with a laboratory test of stool, urine or blood sample. A health care provider will also assess a person’s symptoms, travel history and vaccination history.

There is no cure for polio. There is only treatment available to help manage symptoms.

Call a health care provider, or Health811 to connect to a registered nurse day or night for free, secure and confidential health advice. You can also call Toronto Public Health at 416-336-7600.