Expert / 24 October, 2017 / Dr Ellie Cannon

Should You be Worried about Polio? We Asked Expert Dr Ellie Cannon

When was the last time you talked about polio?

As far as I’m concerned as a doctor, there are very few rules you need to adhere to in order to achieve the accolade “good mother”. Feed your baby quinoa? Ensure they self-soothe? Wash them only in calendula? Yes, all very nice indeed but by no means vital. There are very few parenting mantras that are essential universally and for me, the main one is to vaccinate your babies.

That’s right. Buried beneath the messy swamp of guidelines, pseudo-expertise and dogma you have to navigate as a parent here is something that really matters. I genuinely consider vaccination to be one of mankind’s greatest inventions – along with mascara and micro-scooters of course.

Our kids won’t ever hear of diphtheria, yet not so long ago it killed the child and grandchild of Queen Victoria. Nowadays, whether you live in Buckingham Palace or Buckinghamshire, you don’t have this concern. Along with clean water and proper sewers, vaccination has been responsible for saving the lives of millions of children around the globe.

I have two children and they are both fully vaccinated. One of the reasons I sleep well at night is because I know I have done all I can to protect them from fatal illnesses. Being a natural worrier, vaccinations allow me to keep calm and relax about something: the ultimate way to avoid guilt! Vaccination is a gift for our kids and it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to live in a country where it is available, accessible and free.

A very short history lesson will help us remember: allow me….

There’s so much to talk about after you’ve had a baby: nappies, sleep, breastfeeding, annoying husbands, sleep, nipples, annoying in-laws, formula, nannies, sleep, nurseries, perineums, sleep, changing bags, poo, exhaustion, reflux, sleep. Up and down the country, across cyberspace, around the globe mums are having the same conversations about the big topics that affect us and our babies. I had these conversations when I had my first child 10 years ago; I’m having the same conversations with my patients now. The worries and questions are pretty universal. And throughout all these chats, the funny ones, the serious ones, the neurotic ones, online, on the phone, in Starbucks (again), I bet you have never sat around discussing polio. Am I right?

Of course I am right, why would you be talking about polio? I have never discussed polio either as a mum or a doctor. I’m not even sure I discussed it at medical school, and I went to a very good one.

Why on earth would anyone be discussing polio? We don’t need to worry about polio, it has disappeared hasn’t it? I don’t even know what polio is!

And that is exactly the point. You’re not chatting about polio with your ante-natal posse because there’s no need. No-one knows what polio is anymore because it is no longer important. No parent in the UK needs to worry about polio anymore. The worry has been eradicated: and that is the reason we vaccinate our children.

Polio is a potentially fatal, incurable disease that within hours can cause a child to become irreversibly paralysed. It mainly affects children under 5. But, thankfully, you don’t need to worry about it. Your grandparents had to worry, but you don’t. Your lovely baby won’t talk about it, and her children won’t either. The concern and fear has been eliminated.

But in the first half of the 20th century the very word polio would strike fear in the heart of all parents, just like the word meningitis does now. Polio was synonymous with death, cripple, pain and disability. Thousands of children were paralysed every year until the introduction of a successful vaccination in the 1950s in the UK.

As recently as 1988, 1000 children a day globally were paralysed by polio. Yet twenty years later, after a gigantic worldwide vaccination effort, less than 2000 cases were reported for the entire year. The numbers are staggering aren’t they?

A disease that was crippling thousands of children a day worldwide has been eradicated from all but three countries around the world. The risk to the children in the UK is now so tiny we’ve pretty much confined it to the history books. We even give a weaker vaccine now because the risk is so small it doesn’t warrant the stronger one we used to administer.

The history of polio perfectly illustrates how vaccination is lifesaving. It works and saves lives, not just from death but from suffering and disability. The disease has been fought, and the human race has won. Polio never comes up in any conversation I have in clinic other than when I’m explaining the vaccination schedule to a patient. This is the success of vaccinations: we can afford to forget about devastating diseases.

We don’t ever stop to think about our children becoming lame from polio; it is not on any parenting radar anymore, it isn’t even on my medical radar. In the long list of parental worries these days, polio wouldn’t even make the top 500. And yes, by the way, I probably could name the first 499.

Dr Ellie Cannon author of ‘Keep Calm; the New Mum’s Manual’ (Vermilion) available at

Dr Ellie Cannon Keep Calm The New Mum's Manual

Dr Ellie Cannon Keep Calm The New Mum’s Manual

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