Ask a Nurse: Getting Vaccinated for Polio as an Adult

Ask a NurseThe ExCS site has teamed with a registered nurse and paramedic with a background in healthcare education and public health. Married to a former-CS, the Nurse would like to share their experience with the healthcare system, and answer any questions former-CS may have!  The Nurse will NOT get involved in diagnosing or giving medical advice, but if there are questions folks have related to going to a doctor, explaining medical terminology, how to advocate for yourself in healthcare, and so on, they might have a perspective that can help. 


tl;dr To get your first polio vaccine, you’ll want to contact your doctor or your local health department for more information. Links at the bottom of the post.

HOWEVER, the assumption is adults are all vaccinated (at least for polio), so adult healthcare providers don’t routinely administer the polio vaccine, and often don’t know what to do.


Recently there’s been a case of polio reported in Rockland County New York, just north of New York City, leading to questions on how to get vaccinated. Polio is a virus that can cause paralysis, most famously in US President Franklin Roosevelt. With the advent of a vaccine however, polio has nearly been eradicated (in 2021 there were 6 reported cases worldwide). To prevent a resurgence (like in measles), vaccination is key. Typically, the vaccination schedule is a 4-dose regiment beginning at age 2 months and culminating between age 4-6 years (for unvaccinated adults it’s a 3-dose regiment).

In the United States, the Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccine (IPV) is the only polio vaccine that has been used since 2000. It is given by shot in the leg or arm, depending on the patient’s age. What this essentially means is the polio virus is injected into the person, but the virus is dead, or inactivated. As a result, there’s no risk of actually contracting polio, but the person’s body develops immunity to protect from future exposure of a live polio virus. This video series from Khan Academy is very useful in explaining polio and the vaccine in further detail: https://www.khanacademy.org/test-prep/nclex-rn/rn-infectious- diseases/rn-polio/a/what-is-polio

The risk of serious complications related to the vaccine are very low, however the complications from getting polio can be quite debilitating. As a colleague of mine once put it, “vaccines are arguably the greatest invention in human history.” They have prevented untold numbers of deaths and life-long injuries. In adults, polio can be fatal in 15-30% of patients who suffer paralytic effects. The vaccine protects against those effects.

If you grew up in a family that subscribed to a belief that medicine was unnecessary, you might not have been vaccinated. The question now is, how does one get vaccinated as an adult? The simple advice, at least in the US, is to call your doctor and get vaccinated by following the schedule on the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. The schedule posted by the CDC for adults who have never been vaccinated states adults should receive 3 doses along the following timeline:

  • The first dose at any time
  • The second dose 1 to 2 months later
  • The third dose 6 to 12 months after the second

That said, finding somewhere to get vaccinated as an adult isn’t as straightforward as one might assume. I’ve spent the last few days calling public health departments around the United States, calling private doctors offices, urgent cares, you get the idea. I’ve also reached out to colleagues of mine, one of whom is a vaccine and infectious disease expert, to get help. Nobody has great answers for me. Getting the polio vaccine as an adult, at least in the United States, should not be this hard! The assumption is adults are all vaccinated. As a result, adult healthcare providers don’t routinely administer the polio vaccine, so don’t know what to do, and pediatricians don’t know what to tell adults…

I wanted to get this post up so you’d at least have somewhere to start, but I’m going to keep working on this question. If I get answers and can update this post, I absolutely will. In the meantime, the best advice I have is to call your local public health department and explain your situation. Below are a few links to credible resources you can share with healthcare providers.

List of US state health departments:

Information for Canadian residents:

World Health Organization information:

Information on polio and the polio vaccine through the CDC:

Updated to add – If you are unsure of your vaccination status

Your doctor should be able to order blood tests which should be able to detect if you’ve been vaccinated or if you’ve already had the disease.

You can also try to find immunization records: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/adults/vaccination-records.html

CDC Studies & The Principia Schools/College

CDC logo via wikipediaCompiled by the Ex-Christian Scientist editors.

The Christian Science church often uses the fact that it has obtained religious exemption laws as evidence that Christian Science can heal all diseases as effectively as medical care. However, studies and statistics from the Surveillance and Epidemiology, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC tell a different story.

Many of these studies and statistics center around the Principia Schools and College, as that is where there is a large enough cluster of Christian Scientists to enable the effective study of the impact of their decisions.


Christian Scientists’ high mortality rate

Principia College / Loma Linda University Case Study

A long-term study (1945 – 1983) between the population of graduates of Principia College (PC), a college for Christian Scientists, and Loma Linda University (LLU), a Seventh-day Adventist-affiliated university showed:

“Overall mortality was higher for PC graduates than for LLU graduates (for men, 40 per 1000 and 22 per 1000, respectively… and for women, 27 per 1000 and 12 per 1000, respectively (p=0.001)). Total mortality was higher among PC graduates in 22 (85%) of the 26 cohorts.”

“The doctrines of both religious groups require abstinence from alcohol consumption and smoking. …. The groups also differ in that Christian Scientists reject medical healing in favor of spiritual healing alone, whereas Seventh-day Adventists accept both spiritual and medical healing.”

Reported by: WF Simpson, PhD, Emporia State Univ, Emporia, Kansas. Div of Surveillance and Epidemiology, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.1

Footnote:

1Comparative Mortality of Two College Groups, 1945 – 1983.MMWR. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 23 Aug. 1991. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.

Further Reading:


Christian Science & Religious Exemptions

Measles outbreaks at Principia College

  • In 1985, three Christian Scientists affiliated with Principia College in Elsah, Illinois died; and 712 students were quarantined on campus, when an outbreak of measles sickened more than 100 people.
  • In 1989, another measles outbreak at Principia sickened nearly 100 people, including some off campus, not affiliated with the school.
  • In 1994, another outbreak spread to the Principia, which serves students pre-K through senior high in St. Louis County, Missouri; nearly 200 people contracted measles.1

The [1985 outbreak’s] high attack rate (15.9%) at Principia College is undoubtedly due to these students’ very low immunization levels. The outbreak illustrates the potential severity of measles and the rapidity of spread in an unvaccinated population. The very high apparent death-to-case ratio (2.3%) is unusual in the United States, which usually has a reported death-to-case ratio of 0.1% or lower.2

Footnotes:

1 Townsend, Tim. “Prayer or inoculation? H1N1 is newest dilemma Members of religious groups who forgo vaccines may put neighbors at risk, threaten common good.stltoday.com. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 06 Dec. 2009. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.

2Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Multiple Measles Outbreaks on College Campuses–Ohio, Massachusetts, Illinois.MMWR. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 15 Mar. 1985. Web. 03 Feb. 2016.