a) Photo of person in a large machine with only their head exposed; a nurse stands next to them. B) photo of children held between two bars holding a ball.
(a) An Emerson respiratory (or iron lung) that was used to help some polio victims to breathe. (b) Polio can also result in impaired motor function. (credit b: modification of work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

OpenStax Microbiology

Poliomyelitis (polio), caused by poliovirus, is a primarily intestinal disease that, in a small percentage of cases, proceeds to the nervous system, causing paralysis and, potentially, death. Poliovirus is highly contagious, with transmission occurring by the fecal-oral route or by aerosol or droplet transmission. Approximately 72% of all poliovirus infections are asymptomatic; another 25% result only in mild intestinal disease, producing nausea, fever, and headache. However, even in the absence of symptoms, patients infected with the virus can shed it in feces and oral secretions, potentially transmitting the virus to others. In about one case in every 200, the poliovirus affects cells in the CNS.

After it enters through the mouth, initial replication of poliovirus occurs at the site of implantation in the pharynx and gastrointestinal tract. As the infection progresses, poliovirus is usually present in the throat and in the stool before the onset of symptoms. One week after the onset of symptoms, there is less poliovirus in the throat, but for several weeks, poliovirus continues to be excreted in the stool. Poliovirus invades local lymphoid tissue, enters the bloodstream, and then may infect cells of the CNS. Replication of poliovirus in motor neurons of the anterior horn cells in the spinal cord, brain stem, or motor cortex results in cell destruction and leads to flaccid paralysis. In severe cases, this can involve the respiratory system, leading to death. Patients with impaired respiratory function are treated using positive-pressure ventilation systems. In the past, patients were sometimes confined to Emerson respirators, also known as iron lungs.

Direct detection of the poliovirus from the throat or feces can be achieved using reverse transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR) or genomic sequencing to identify the genotype of the poliovirus infecting the patient. Serological tests can be used to determine whether the patient has been previously vaccinated. There are no therapeutic measures for polio; treatment is limited to various supportive measures. These include pain relievers, rest, heat therapy to ease muscle spasms, physical therapy and corrective braces if necessary to help with walking, and mechanical ventilation to assist with breathing if necessary.

Two different vaccines were introduced in the 1950s that have led to the dramatic decrease in polio worldwide. The Salk vaccine is an inactivated polio virus that was first introduced in 1955. This vaccine is delivered by intramuscular injection. The Sabin vaccine is an oral polio vaccine that contains an attenuated virus; it was licensed for use in 1962. There are three serotypes of poliovirus that cause disease in humans; both the Salk and the Sabin vaccines are effective against all three.

Attenuated viruses from the Sabin vaccine are shed in the feces of immunized individuals and thus have the potential to infect nonimmunized individuals. By the late 1990s, the few polio cases originating in the United States could be traced back to the Sabin vaccine. In these cases, mutations of the attenuated virus following vaccination likely allowed the microbe to revert to a virulent form. For this reason, the United States switched exclusively to the Salk vaccine in 2000. Because the Salk vaccine contains an inactivated virus, there is no risk of transmission to others. Currently four doses of the vaccine are recommended for children: at 2, 4, and 6–18 months of age, and at 4–6 years of age.

In 1988, WHO launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative with the goal of eradicating polio worldwide through immunization. That goal is now close to being realized. Polio is now endemic in only a few countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, where vaccination efforts have been disrupted by military conflict or political instability.

a) Micrograph of many circles. B) Photos of Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk.
(a) Polio is caused by the poliovirus. (b) Two American virologists developed the first polio vaccines: Albert Sabin (left) and Jonas Salk (right). (credit a: modification of work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology


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