Poliomyelitis (polio)is a serious infectious disease caused by a virus. Symptoms vary from mild, flu-like symptoms to life-threatening paralysis. Between two and five per cent of people who develop paralytic polio will die. Half of those who survive will have permanent paralysis. Symptoms of new weakness, joint and muscle pain and fatigue can occur years after an initial bout of polio and is known as post-polio syndrome.
Polio can be prevented with immunisation. All children and adults should receive the vaccine. If you are not immunised, you could contract polio if your food, water or hands are contaminated with the faeces (poo) of an infected person.
Serious side effects or allergic reactions to the vaccine are rare. If you are concerned about your reaction or your child’s reaction to any vaccine, see your doctor immediately.
Immunisation and global polio eradication
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative aims to eliminate all cases of polio around the world. It is a global public health plan, with immunisation as an important part of the program. The entire western Pacific region, including Australia, has been declared polio-free since 2000.
New cases of polio in Australia are rare, but the disease remains a health risk for travellers to some countries of the world. Since 1986, the only new case of polio in Australia was reported in July 2007. This person was a traveller who acquired his infection in Pakistan.
If Australian children and adults are not immunised, polio could again become a problem in this country.
Immunisation against polio
Immunisation is the best protection against polio and is recommended for all infants, children and adults.
In November 2005, an inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) replaced the oral vaccine in Australia. This vaccine is given by injection, rather than by mouth and, in Victoria, is combined with vaccines for other infectious diseases when given to children at two, four and six months and at four years of age.
Protection against polio is available free of charge under the National Immunisation Program Schedule. In Victoria, immunisation against polio is free for:
- babies at two, four and six months - immunisation in the form of a diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, polio and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine (six-in-one vaccine)
- children at four years - a booster dose in the form of a diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio vaccine (four-in-one vaccine)
- children up to and including nine years of age - catch up immunisation with combination vaccines is available.
- Young people aged 10 to 19 years from families who currently receive family assistance payments between 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2017 can receive the free National Immunisation Program vaccines.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, refugees and asylum seekers from ten years of age – catch-up immunisations with a polio-only vaccine are available for people who have not been fully vaccinated.
The injectable polio vaccine is interchangeable with the oral polio vaccine (which is no longer available in Australia). If a child had one or more doses of the oral polio vaccine before 1 November 2005, their remaining doses can be given as injectable vaccine.
Polio immunisation for adults
All adults should make sure that they have been vaccinated against polio. Adults receiving the polio vaccine for the first time should have a course of three injections with an interval of four weeks between the doses. If you have not received at least three doses of polio vaccine, speak to your doctor about catch-up doses.
Adults do not need a booster dose unless they are at special risk. You are at risk and should arrange with your doctor to get a booster if you:
- intend to travel to areas where polio is present – check with your doctor if you are travelling outside of Australia, especially to Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Angola or Chad
- are a laboratory worker likely to handle laboratory specimens that contain live poliovirus.
Booster doses of the vaccine are recommended every 10 years for at-risk adults. If you are travelling overseas, speak to your doctor before you go about whether you need a booster polio immunisation for the countries you are visiting.
Before receiving the vaccine, tell your doctor or nurse if you (or your child):
- are unwell (temperature over 38.5 ˚C)
- have allergies to any other medicines or substances
- have had a serious reaction to any vaccine
- have had a serious reaction to any component of the vaccine
- have had a severe allergy to anything
- are pregnant.
Side effects of polio vaccines
Immunisations containing the vaccine against polio are effective and safe although all medications can have unwanted side effects.
Side effects from polio vaccines are uncommon and usually mild, but may include:
- muscle aches
- localised pain, redness and swelling at the injection site
- occasionally, an injection-site lump (nodule) that may last many weeks but treatment is not needed
- low-grade temperature (fever)
- children can be unsettled, irritable, cry, are generally unhappy, drowsy and tired.
Side effects after polio immunisation
Common side effects following immunisation are usually mild and temporary (occurring in the first few days after vaccination). Specific treatment is not usually required.
There are a number of treatment options that can reduce the side effects of the vaccine including:
- giving extra fluids to drink and not overdressing if there is a fever
- although routine use of paracetamol after vaccination is not recommended, if fever is present, paracetamol can be given check the label for the correct dose or speak with your pharmacist, (especially when giving paracetamol to children).
Managing injection site discomfort
Many vaccine injections may result in soreness, redness, itching, swelling or burning at the injection site for one to two days. Paracetamol might be required to ease the discomfort.
Concerns about immunisation side effects
If the side effect following immunisation is unexpected, persistent or severe or if you are worried about yourself or your child’s condition after a vaccination, see your doctor or immunisation nurse as soon as possible or go directly to a hospital. Immunisation side effects may be reported to SAEFVIC, the Victorian vaccine safety and central reporting service.
You can discuss with your immunisation provider how to report adverse events in other states or territories. It is also important to seek medical advice if you (or your child) are unwell, as this may be due to other illness rather than because of the vaccination.
Rare side effects of immunisation
There is a very small risk of a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any vaccine. This is why you are advised to stay at the clinic or medical surgery for at least 15 minutes following immunisation in case further treatment is required.
Another rare side effect of some vaccines is the hypotonic-hyporesponsive episode (HHE). The baby may show signs of paleness, limpness and be unresponsive. This may occur one to 48 hours following vaccination. The whole episode may last from a few minutes to 36 hours. Follow-up of children with HHE shows no long-term neurological or other side effects.
Immunisation and HALO
The immunisations you may need are decided by your health, age, lifestyle and occupation. Together, these factors are referred to as HALO.
Talk to your doctor or immunisation provider if you think you or someone in your care has health, age, lifestyle or occupation factors that could mean immunisation is necessary. You can check your immunisation HALO using the Immunisation for Life infographic (pdf) downloadable poster.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- In an emergency, always call triple zero (000)
- Emergency department of your nearest hospital
- Local government immunisation service
- Maternal and Child Health Line (24 hours) Tel. 132 229
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 - for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Immunisation Section, Department of Health and Human Services, Victorian Government Tel. 1300 882 008
- Smartraveller.gov.au, Australian Government Tel. 1300 555 135 (from within Australia) or +61 2 6261 3305 (from overseas)
- National Immunisation Information Line Tel. 1800 671 811
- SAEFVIC Tel. 1300 882 924 – the line is attended between 10 am and 3.30 pm and you can leave a message at all other times
Things to remember
- Until polio is eradicated globally, it can re-emerge in any country, so immunisation remains important in Australia.
- If children and adults are not immunised, polio may re-establish in Australia.
- New cases of polio in Australia are rare, but the disease remains a health risk for travellers to some countries of the world.
- In Victoria, the polio vaccine for children is combined with vaccines for other infectious diseases.
- You need several doses of the inactivated polio vaccine before you are fully protected from polio.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.