Commonly called 'polio' and once known as infantile paralysis, poliomyelitis is an acute viral infection of the central nervous system. The disease is spread from the feces of infected persons. The virus attacks the motor components of the brain and spinal cord. The effects range from mild weakness to total paralysis of muscles. Early symptoms include mild fever, sore throat, and headache, vomiting, drowsiness and stiffness in the neck and back.
There is often complete recovery at this stage, leaving the patient with life-long immunity to further polio infection. If polio progresses, cramping muscle pains and spasms develop and the affected muscles may become weakened or paralyzed. In young children paralysis of one limb is common, in older people more muscles are usually affected. There may be hoarseness and difficulty in swallowing. If breathing or swallowing muscles become paralyzed, the patient's life may be in danger. In some cases, a respirator ('iron lung') may be necessary to help a patient breathe.
There is no specific treatment for poliomyelitis although, with skilled hospital care, patients usually survive. Paralysis is permanent. The incidence of poliomyelitis in Australia has been greatly reduced by immunization. However, in countries without immunization programs, 35000 childhood deaths from polio were reported in one recent year. Irresponsible neglect of immunization could lead to the resurgence of the disease in this country. It is essential that infants are immunized to protect them against polio. The oral vaccine is given in three doses during the first year of life with a booster dose given around the age of 5.