You may have seen news stories in recent months about the polio virus being found in London sewage and you may also have heard that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is asking the NHS to focus on giving 'catch-up' vaccination boosters to children. But does that include your child – even if they they've already had their polio vaccine?


Does this polio catch-up vaccination programme apply to all children in the UK?

No, it only applies to only children who live in London and who are between the ages of 1 and 9. This is because London is the only area of the UK where the polio virus has been detected in sewage.

Would my child have been vaccinated against polio as part of their routine childhood vaccinations?

Yes, but whether or not your child is up to date with their vaccinations, if they are between the ages of 1 and 9 and live in London, they will still be offered a catch-up polio vaccine. See I think my child is up to date with their polio vaccine: do they need an extra dose?, below.

How do I check if my child is up to date with their polio vaccinations?

Polio vaccinations are given (in a combined jab with other vaccines) at the routine 8-week, 12-week and 16-week baby vaccinations, then again as part of the pre-school boosters, and then once more with the teenage booster (at age 14). Children need all 5 doses to be fully vaccinated against polio.

To find out if your child is up to date, you can check in your child's red book or, if you don't have a red book, ask your GP surgery to give you your child's vaccination record.

Don't worry if you can't see the word 'polio' in the red book/record: because the polio vaccine is given in combination with other vaccines, such as tetanus and diphtheria, you'll need to look for other terms instead, such as '6-in-1', '4-in-1' or '3-in-1' or a set of initials such as DTaP/IPV, dTaP/IPV or Td/IPV.

What should I do if my child is not up to date with their vaccinations?

If you live in London and your child is not up to date, or their vaccine history is uncertain, they will be offered the routine childhood immunisation dose. Depending on how many doses they have already had and when they had them, they may need more than 1 vaccination.

I think my child is up to date with their polio vaccine: do they need an extra dose?

Even if your child is up to date with their routine childhood immunisations they may need a booster.

  • If your child is between 1 and 3 years 4 months and has had their 3 primary doses, they will be offered an additional dose of vaccine.
  • If your child is over 3 years 4 months but under 10, and has not yet had the pre-school booster vaccine, which includes polio, they will be offered this.
  • If your child is over 3 years 4 months but under 10 and they have had their 3 primary doses and their preschool booster, they may be offered an additional dose, depending on the date they had their preschool booster. If that was more than 12 months ago, they will be offered an additional dose of the polio vaccine.

Which vaccination will they receive?

This will depend on your child’s age and vaccination status. The polio vaccine is given in combination with other vaccines, to give your child protection against diphtheria and tetanus and, depending on which combination vaccine is used, may also protect against whooping cough, hepatitis B and Hib.

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There is no safety concern about giving an additional dose of vaccination against these infections.

Are there any side effects?

There may be some redness, soreness or swelling around the site of the injection which tends to resolve within a few days. Your child may also develop a fever.

What is polio? How dangerous is it?

Polio is a viral infection which is often asymptomatic – meaning that it does not always have symptoms but can be passed on. It is spread when you breathe in virus-laden droplets from someone who has polio and then coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread in contaminated food or water.

It can cause a flu-like illness, with fever and aches and pains for about 10 days. More rarely, it can cause paralysis, often of the legs, which generally slowly improves, but it can be life-threatening if the muscles involved in breathing are also affected.

When I was doing my clinical training to be a doctor, I spent time on the respiratory ward at London's St Thomas's hospital. It was the early 2000s and there were still iron lungs on the ward for using with polio patients whose breathing had been seriously compromised.

Polio was thought to have been eradicated in the UK but we live in a global world and polio still occurs in other countries, meaning it's still possible for the virus to be brought back here by travellers.

How was the polio virus found in London?

It was found in sewage in London in the summer of 2022. Surveillance of London sewage has continued since then and detection has reduced: in fact, since November 2022, the polio virus hasn't been found in London sewage. There has been no detection of the virus in routine sewage surveillance in other parts of the UK.

It's not known for certain how the virus came to be in London sewage in the first place but it is thought to be have been shed in the poo of someone who was vaccinated in another country where they still vaccinate people with the live oral polio vaccine.

In the UK, polio vaccinations are given as an injection in combination with other vaccines (as explained above) and there is not 'live' element. But, in other parts of the world, a live but weakened form of the virus is given as part of an oral vaccine. This oral vaccine was given in the UK until 2004: ask your parents or grandparents – they may well remember taking the vaccine on a sugar lump in the doctor’s surgery.

Should I be worried about my child catching polio?

It is thought that the risk of developing polio is currently low but it is important to take up the booster if your child is offered it. Acting now will not only protect your child but also help prevent the virus spreading. If you are concerned about your child, please speak to a healthcare professional.

About our expert Dr Philippa Kaye

Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.

Pic: Getty Images


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