Polio Immunisation

All children and adults should be immunised against polio. See your practice nurse if you think that you are not fully immunised.

Polio (poliomyelitis) is a serious illness caused by the poliovirus. The virus first infects the gut, but then travels to the nervous system and can cause a meningitis-like illness. This may leave permanent damage to some nerves. This can lead to wasting of some muscles and can sometimes cause paralysis of the arms or legs. The illness can seriously affect breathing in some people and may even lead to death. In 1955, before the introduction of polio immunisation, there were nearly 4,000 reported cases of polio in England and Wales. Polio is now very rare in the UK because of the success of immunisation.

  • For young children, polio vaccine is normally part of the combined DTaP/IPV(polio)/Hib injection - this stands for 'diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough)/polio/Haemophilus influenzae type b', which is given as part of the routine childhood immunisation programme.
  • For adults and teenagers who receive polio immunisation, the combined Td/IPV(polio) vaccine is normally used - this stands for 'tetanus, diphtheria/polio'.

The vaccine stimulates your body to make antibodies against the poliovirus. These antibodies protect you from illness should you become infected with this virus.

The vaccine is safe to be given if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Before 2004, the polio vaccine was given as drops into the mouth. It is now always given as an injection. If you have previously started a course of polio immunisation with oral vaccine you can finish off the course with polio injections. You do not need to start again.

All children are offered polio immunisation as part of the routine immunisation programme. A full course of polio immunisation consists of five doses of vaccine as follows:

  Children Adults (who have not been immunised as a child)
Primary Course Three doses of vaccine - as DTaP/IPV(polio)/Hib at two, three and four months of age. Three doses of vaccine - as Td/IPV(polio), each one month apart.
4th dose Three years after the primary course - as part of the DTaP/IPV(polio) pre-school booster at 3 years and four months to 5 years. 5 years after the primary course - as Td/IPV(polio).
5th dose Aged 13-18 years - the school leaver booster - as Td/IPV(polio). 10 years after 4th dose - as Td/IPV(polio).

The primary course of three injections gives good protection for a number of years. The fourth and fifth doses ('boosters') are needed in later years to maintain protection. After the fifth dose, immunity remains for life and you do not need any further boosters (apart from some travel situations - see 'Travellers', below).

  • Slight swelling and redness at the injection site are common.
  • A little area of hard skin may form at the injection site, which usually disappears in time.
  • Sometimes a high temperature (fever) occurs a few hours after the injection.
  • Serious reactions are extremely rare.

Polio is not just a childhood illness, it can affect anyone. Children in the UK have been immunised against polio since 1958. If you were born before 1958 you may not have been immunised. All adults who are not immunised against polio should start by having the primary course of three polio vaccines at monthly intervals. Then have the booster doses as described above.

Polio has been practically destroyed (eradicated) in much of the world, due to immunisation. However, it is still a problem in some regions, particularly Nigeria and Pakistan. Your GP or practice nurse can advise if your travel destination is an at-risk area for polio. If you are travelling to an at-risk area:

  • Many people will already be be fully immunised from their routine childhood immunisations and do not need a booster.
  • If you have not had a booster within the last 10 years, you may be advised to have a booster dose of vaccine if you travel to certain countries. This is particularly important for health workers who intend to work in at-risk areas.
  • Adults - see notes above. If you are not immunised, you should be immunised before you travel.
Original Author:
Dr Tim Kenny
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Last Checked:
10/12/2013
Document ID:
4313 (v42)
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