SHREVEPORT, La. — The poliovirus, which was eradicated in the U.S. due to the creation of a vaccine in 1955, has been found in New York.
Before the introduction of the vaccine, around 600,000 children worldwide became paralyzed each year from the disease. In the U.S., it paralyzed 35,000 people per year.
Polio was one of the most feared diseases in the country. But the vaccine got rid of the virus. Until now.
Recently, an unvaccinated man was hospitalized with fever, pain, stiffness and weak limbs. Testing showed he had polio. Public health experts then found polio in wastewater. They discovered it had been circulating since May.
So, how did this happen?
This is where things get a bit complicated. The poliovirus found in New York is not the original strain. It is a mutated strain, shed by someone who had received the oral polio vaccine.
There are two types of polio vaccines, an injection and an oral vaccine. The oral vaccine contains a weakened live virus, which builds immunity in the person who receives it. The person who takes this version of the vaccine is not at risk of contracting polio. But while the vaccine is in their system, they excrete infectious poliovirus. Again, the vaccine poses no threat to the person who receives it. But anyone around them who is unvaccinated is at risk.
Even so, most people who get polio have no symptoms.
“We also know from the polio if you have a thousand people infected with polio, only one or two of them will actually develop polio disease. Most people who get infected with the virus don’t get sick from it,” said Dr. John Vanchiere, infectious disease expert and professor of pediatrics with LSU Health Shreveport. “And in the United States, the vast majority of us have had polio vaccine. And so, we have very good protection, and very, very low risk.”
But in the area of New York, where the first case was identified, the polio vaccination rate is low, which means higher risk.
“The one particular area in Rockland County has a vaccination rate against polio as low as 37 or 38%,” Vanchiere said. “And so, what that means is that there are a lot of kids in that area that are very susceptible. If they haven’t been vaccinated or completed their vaccine series, they’re very susceptible to polio.”
Now, health officials detected polio in the wastewater of a neighboring New York county, and have warned the public of the possibility of community spread. They are advising unvaccinated people to get the shot.