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Polio emerged as a serious health threat to the UK in the middle of the 20th century, when it caused hundreds of deaths, and thousands of paralysed children every year. Since then the disease has been eradicated from most of the world, including Europe, though it remains a problem in the Indian subcontinent and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Polio is caused from contaminated water or food. The vast majority of people who ‘catch’ polio remain well and so do not realise they have encountered the polio virus. However, some become paralysed, of whom 5% die, a quarter remain moderately or severely paralysed and two thirds make a full, or nearly complete, recovery. Polio can paralyse any of the muscles of the body and one of the more serious effects is paralysis of the respiratory muscles used to breathe. The World Health Organisation declared Europe polio free in June 2002, though the UK had been ‘polio-free’ for considerably longer than this. The last case of paralysis recorded in the UK was in 2000 in someone who contracted polio from the – then used – live vaccine that was given as drops. There is still a theoretical possibility of catching polio in the UK from someone who is still harbouring the live vaccine virus or from imported polio, though the risk is extremely small.

Picture courtesy CDC