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What is Poliomyelitis? Print E-mail
Written by Glenn Rosenberg   
Sunday, 08 November 2009

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a virus that causes a mild, flu-like illness in some people but in others leads to nerve damage and paralysis. A vaccine to prevent polio was developed in the 1950s and since then the infection has been eliminated from the US and most of Europe. The virus reproduces in the digestive system and spreads through the blood to the rest of the body. The virus is spread to others through infected feces or by airborne particles.

What is going on in the body?
During an attack of polio, nerve cells in the spinal cord are damaged or destroyed. These nerve cells transmit nerve impulses to the muscles and cause them to move. Without these functioning nerve cells, the body cannot move. Some of these nerve cells survive, however, and they can send out new nerve connections. In these cases, persons can regain much of their muscle use.

What are the causes and risks of the infection?
Polio is caused by the poliovirus. In countries where people are not routinely vaccinated against the disease, polio can be spread through infected feces or through airborne particles.

What are the treatments for the infection?
People with mild symptoms usually get better after several days of bed rest. Any additional infections are treated with antibiotics. People who have damage to their nerve cells need to have their symptoms treated.
- Muscle spasms and pain are treated with medication and hot, moist packs.
- Sometimes the nerves and muscles that control the bladder are affected. In this case, a urinary catheter can be inserted into the bladder to drain urine.
- A ventilator, or artificial breathing machine, may be needed if the nerves and muscles of the lungs are damaged.
- A firm bed with a footboard can be used for people with paralysis of the legs.
- In cases of paralysis, physical therapy can help prevent muscle damage while the disease is active. Once the virus is no longer active, physical therapy can help keep the muscles functioning.

What are the side effects of the treatments?

All medications have side effects. Antibiotics and pain medications have some side effects, such as stomach upset or allergic reactions. Treatments to help with breathing or urination may cause infections.

What happens after treatment for the infection?
After the poliovirus is treated, the person will still need physical therapy to gain strength and mobility. After many years, new nerve cells can begin to fail, resulting in muscle weakness. This is known as postpolio syndrome.

How is the infection monitored?
Monitoring is ongoing. Postpolio syndrome develops very slowly. It is usually diagnosed after muscle strength testing is done over a long period of time.


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