Polio, an infectious disease caused by a virus that lives in the throat and intestinal tract, was once the leading cause of disability in the U.S. Since the introduction of the polio vaccine in 1955, the disease has been eradicated in the U.S. But the disease is still common in some developing countries and until it is eradicated worldwide, the risk of it spreading to the U.S. still exists. For that reason, the polio vaccination remains one of the recommended childhood immunizations. In most parts of the U.S., polio immunization is required before a child can start school.
How the Polio Vaccination Is Given
If you had the polio vaccination prior to 2000, you may have received the oral polio vaccine (OPV), which was made from a live poliovirus. Although the live virus vaccine was highly effective at protecting against polio, a few cases of polio per year were caused by the oral vaccine itself. In 2000, the U.S. switched to the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). Using an inactive (dead) form of the virus that cannot cause polio, the IPV is given as a shot in the arm or leg.
Who Needs the Polio Vaccine
Most people should get the polio vaccine when they are children. Children should be vaccinated with four doses of IPV at the following ages:
- A dose at 2 months
- A dose at 4 months
- A dose at 6-18 months
- A booster dose at 4-6 years
IPV may be given at the same time as other vaccinations.
Because most adults were vaccinated as children, routine polio vaccination is not recommended for people ages 18 and older who live in the U.S. But three groups of adults at higher risk for coming into contact with the poliovirus should consider polio vaccination. They are:
- Travelers to other parts of the world where polio is still common
- People who work in labs handling specimens that might contain polioviruses
- Health care workers who have close contact with a person who could be infected with the poliovirus
If you fall into any of these three groups you should speak to your health care provider about the polio vaccination. If you have never been vaccinated against polio, you should get three doses of IPV:
- The first dose at any time
- The second dose 1 to 2 months later
- The third dose 6 to 12 months after the second
If you have had one or two doses of polio vaccine in the past you should get the remaining one or two doses. It doesn't matter how long it has been since the earlier dose or doses.
Who Should Not Get the Polio Vaccine
You should not receive the polio vaccine if:
- You have had a severe allergic reaction from a previous dose of the polio vaccine
- You have had a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotics streptomycin, polymyxin B, or neomycin
Although no side effects have been reported in pregnant women who have received the vaccine, pregnant women should avoid the vaccine if possible. Pregnant women who fall into one of the groups of adults listed above should speak with their doctors about receiving an IPV according to the recommended schedule for adults.
People who are moderately or severely ill should usually wait until they have recovered before receiving the vaccine.
Risks and Side Effects of Polio Vaccination
Some people who get the polio shot get a sore, red spot where the shot was given, but otherwise the vaccine is very safe. Most people don't have any problems with it at all.
However, the polio vaccine, like any medicine, could potentially cause serious problems, such as a severe allergic reaction. The risk that the vaccine could cause any serious harm is extremely small.