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.

Canada has been polio-free for the last 20 years, but 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.

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 City’s fixed-site vaccination clinics.

Adults 18 years of age and older who missed the polio vaccine as a child and are not up-to-date with their vaccines can still get them for free. 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.

For more information, talk to your doctor or call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600.