Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Among those paralyzed, 5-10 percent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

People most at risk
Polio mainly affects children under five years of age.

There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented. Polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life.


Polio (poliomyelitis), which is highly infectious and often strikes children under five, overtakes the nervous system and can cause paralysis within a matter of hours. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis – usually of the legs. Of those paralyzed, up to 10 percent die due to their breathing muscles being immobilized by the disease.

Lacking a known cure, polio was largely eradicated through the World Health Organization (WHO)-supported Global Polio Eradication Initiative established in 1988. As a result of mass immunization campaigns, polio decreased by 99 percent worldwide since 1988.

In 2010, only four countries in the world remain polio-endemic, down from more than 125 in 1988. The remaining countries are Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. In 2009-2010, 23 previously polio-free countries were re-infected due to imports of the virus including Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where International Medical Corps is helping to launch a mass immunization campaign to eradicate the outbreak.

Information from World Health Organization


Knowledge of the poliovirus has expanded with aggressive research carried out under the eradication effort. Success hinges on closing a substantial funding gap to finance the next steps of the global eradication initiative. As polio cannot be cured – only prevented – polio vaccines administered multiple times, can protect a child for life. Per the World Health Assembly’s 2006 resolution, three elements are pivotal to quickly averting the epidemic:

  • Immediate, mass oral polio vaccine campaigns in areas where cases have been documented
  • Mass, oral polio vaccine campaigns in areas bordering the current epidemic
  • Heightened Acute Flaccid Paralysis surveillance in areas where cases have been documented & in neighboring areas

It is important to note, that polio vaccines must be administered multiple times in order for a child to be completely immune. The fact that several boosters are required to induce protective immunity significantly decreases the success of polio vaccination programs.

Widespread social mobilization and communication campaigns should be conducted at the community level to ensure awareness about the outbreak, educate locals on the need for vaccinations, and to combat misconceptions regarding vaccinations. Conducting this level of response, however, is contingent upon rapidly mobilizing emergency funding from the global community.


Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – In late 2010, International Medical Corps helped launch a mass immunization campaign against polio after DRC and other countries in West Africa saw a resurgence of the disease. MORE

Angola - In Huambo, International Medical Corps' team of six vaccinators dedicated themselves to educating and protecting children and women of child-bearing age from vaccine-preventable diseases including polio. MORE

Afghanistan– International Medical Corps teams vaccinated children under five for polio in refugee settlements bordering Peshawar, Pakistan. We reached 10,000 families living in Shamshatoo camp.MORE

Haiti– The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) recently reported four cases of Acute Flaccid Paralysis in recovering cholera patients in Haiti which can be a symptom of polio. We are currently implementing a large-scale cholera response and prevention program in Haiti and are monitoring the situation.MORE


For nearly 30 years, a significant number of International Medical Corps’ responses have included technical assistance for the treatment and control of epidemic diseases. We work to help vulnerable communities prevent and respond to infectious diseases that have the potential to cross borders and become acute public health risks including:


For 30 years, International Medical Corps has worked to relieve the suffering of those impacted by war, natural disaster and disease by delivering vital health care services that focus on training, helping devastated populations return to self-reliance.