Wednesday 11 December 2019
Photo: iStock

The Ministry of Health confirmed on 6 December 2019 the first case of polio – or also known as poliomyelitis – in Malaysia, after the disease’s last occurence in 1992.

A three-month-old baby boy from Tuaran, Sabah started showing symptoms of the virus infection before getting his second vaccination shot. The infant was tested positive for polio after being admitted to a hospital with a fever and weakness of his limbs. According to reports, it is suspected that the virus infecting the boy was brought into Sabah from the Philippines, as the infant’s family had not travelled overseas.

The resurgence of polio is both unexpected and concerning. Here is what everybody should know about the infectious and life-threatening disease:

What is polio?

Polio is a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease. The virus can invade an infected person’s brain and spinal cord. Specifically, it affects the spinal cord at the C3-5 level, destroying motor neurons within the area, predominantly to the brain stem and motor neurons. This is why the viral infection may result in paralysis, breathing problems, and may be fatal.

How does polio spread?

Polio is caused by person-to-person transmission of poliovirus, as explained by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This highly contagious virus can be transmitted by contact through secretions from the nose, mouth or faeces of an infected person. It can also spread through direct contact with an infected person.

The virus enters via the infected person’s nose and mouth, multiplying in the nose as well as intestinal tract. It is then absorbed and spread through the blood and lymphatic system. The incubation period – from being infected to the appearance of symptoms – ranges from seven to 14 days.

What are Polio signs and symptoms?

World Health Organisation (WHO) shares that the majority of people who become infected with polio will not have any symptoms and won’t even know they have been infected. However, if the virus gets past the body’s intestine and into your bloodstream, you may develop symptoms of sub-clinical, or nonparalytic polio.

The symptoms are usually mild flu-like symptoms. In most mild cases, the patient would experience headache, slight fever, nausea and vomiting for up to 3 days.

Next, slightly more severe cases are characterised by moderate fever, fatigue, as well as muscle pains and stiffness, particularly in the neck and back.

Finally, as for severe cases, the patient might show signs of fever, muscle pain or spasms, muscle weakness, stiffness, constipation, tremor and difficulty with swallowing.

How is polio diagnosed and treated?

Your doctor will diagnose polio by looking at your symptoms, and based on your medical history.

Typically, if you have not been vaccinated and present with difficulty swallowing or breathing, abnormal reflexes, and a stiff neck, your doctor may suspect you have polio.

Confirmation can be done via a mucus sample (throat swab), stool sample, or a sample of cerebrospinal fluid. The sample is sent to a laboratory to see if the poliovirus is present.

There is currently no cure or treatment for poliovirus infection. Instead, your doctor will focus on strategies that help speed your recovery and prevent complications. These may include bed rest, pain medications, a portable ventilator to assist your breathing, and moderate exercise to prevent your muscles from atrophying.

And the end of it all, prevention is still better than cure – so the best way to prevent polio is to get a vaccination against it.

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