What is polio?

Polio is a debilitating and life-threatening disease. A virus that can affect the brain and spinal cord, polio can cause paralysis or even death. This makes polio very dangerous, especially for New Yorkers who are unvaccinated or not up to date with their polio immunizations.

There is no cure for polio, but disease, including paralysis, is preventable through safe and effective vaccination. IPV—the only vaccine available in the U.S.—is safe and contains no live virus. It protects 99 – 100 percent of people who receive all recommended doses.

Why are we concerned?

Polio had been considered eliminated from the United States since 1979, meaning there was no longer routine spread of the virus. Then on July 21, 2022, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) and the Rockland County Department of Health (RCDOH) alerted the public to a case of paralytic polio in an unvaccinated young adult in Rockland County. The case was identified by NYSDOH's Wadsworth Center Laboratory and confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through testing. The individual experienced severe symptoms, including paralysis, and was hospitalized. New Yorkers should know that paralysis from polio is typically permanent, resulting in life-long disability.

Poliovirus spreads rapidly and easily- it often does not cause symptoms or causes milder symptoms without paralysis, so even one case of paralysis generally means that there is wider spread of the virus in the community and others are at risk.

How does polio spread?

  • Polio spreads from person-to-person through contact with the poop (often tiny, invisible amounts) of an infected person. It can also spread through the sneeze or cough droplets from an infected person.
  • This can happen when someone is in close contact with an infected person, such as by caring for them or sharing food or utensils with them.
  • Polio is very contagious, and not everyone who is infected with polio will show symptoms. Some have mild or flu-like symptoms that can be easily mistaken for another type of virus.
  • Still, all infected people can spread the virus and infect others, even if they have no symptoms.
  • The best way New Yorkers can ensure they are protected from this highly contagious virus that can cause paralysis and even death is by staying up to date with polio immunizations.

What are the symptoms of polio?

There are a range of symptoms people infected with polio may experience, from no symptoms, to mild and flu-like symptoms, to serious symptoms, including paralysis, permanent disability, and even death. New Yorkers should not take comfort in the fact that some people will not experience symptoms from polio; this only makes the danger of this life-threatening virus greater, because it can spread silently and infect large numbers of people until symptomatic and possibly severe infections occur with serious consequences. Polio survivors can also experience post-polio syndrome, a condition that can impact individuals decades after they recover from their initial poliovirus infection.

Mild & Flu-like Symptoms

According to CDC, 70% of people infected with polio experience no symptoms. About 25% experience mild or flu-like symptoms that may be mistaken for many other illnesses, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiffness
  • Muscle or stomach pain
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Sore throat

Serious Symptoms, & Paralysis

A smaller proportion of people will develop more serious symptoms that affect the brain and spinal cord, including:

  • Paresthesia (feeling of pins and needles in the legs)
  • Meningitis (infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain)
  • Paralysis (can't move parts of the body) or weakness in the arms, legs, or both

Post-polio Syndrome, Disability & Death

New Yorkers should know that paralysis is the most severe symptom associated with polio, because it can lead to permanent disability and death. Even children who seem to fully recover can develop new muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults 15 to 40 years later. This is called post-polio syndrome.

How can I protect myself and my family from polio?

  • Make sure you and your family are fully immunized- learn more about polio immunization here.
  • Practice good hand and respiratory hygiene:
    • Wash hands often with soap and water. Note that alcohol-based sanitizers do not work on some types of germs, like polio.
    • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, not your bare hand.

New York State's Polio Response

  • WASTEWATER SURVEILLANCE TO IDENTIFY THE VIRUS IN COMMUNITIES: NYSDOH launched wastewater surveillance — a tool to check for signs of the virus in sewage water in communities, as people infected with polio shed virus in their stool. Throughout 2022, testing and sequence analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detected poliovirus repeatedly in samples collected from New York City, Orange County, Rockland County, and Sullivan County and in one sample from Nassau County. All samples reported are samples of concern, meaning they are types of poliovirus that can cause paralysis in humans. New York State is continuing weekly monitoring of wastewater in counties of concern; the latest wastewater surveillance results are here.
  • INCREASING IMMUNIZATIONS: Working with local and national health authorities, healthcare providers and clinics, and community-based organizations, particularly in the affected areas, NYSDOH is driving immunizations among unvaccinated and under-vaccinated children, for whom coverage is lower, and adults. The inactivated polio vaccine, the only vaccine available in the U.S., protects 99 to 100 percent of people against disease who receive all recommended doses. Learn more about polio immunization here, and check polio vaccination rates for children by two years of age by county and zip code here.