“Polio can lead to paralysis and even death,” the city said in a tweet. Officials are urging unvaccinated New Yorkers to immediately seek the shots that protect against the virus.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real, but the defense is so simple — get vaccinated against polio,” city health commissioner Ashwin Vasan said in a press release. “With polio circulating in our communities, there is simply nothing more essential than vaccinating our children to protect them from this virus, and if you are an unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated adult, choose now to get the vaccine. Polio is completely preventable and its return should be a call to action for all of us.”
Before Friday’s announcement, the virus had been found in wastewater in New York City’s northern suburbs in Rockland and Orange counties. Only one person, an unvaccinated 20-year-old man from Rockland County, was known to be infected. The man sought treatment at a New York City hospital in June, officials said last month, and has difficulty walking. Officials said no other cases have been identified.
Its infection, the first in the United States in nearly a decade, and the presence of the virus in wastewater in suburban counties hinted at wider local transmission, the New York State Health Department said last week. Officials urged anyone who has not been vaccinated against polio, especially people in the greater New York metropolitan region, to get vaccinated.
The US population is highly vaccinated, but anyone who is unsure whether he or she received the series of injections in childhood should seek the advice of a medical provider. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent a team to Rockland County to help with the investigation. Three doses of the polio vaccine provide at least 99 percent protection, according to the CDC.
“Based on past polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every case of paralytic polio seen, hundreds of other people could be infected,” state health commissioner Mary T. Bassett said in last week’s statement. “Combined with the latest wastewater findings, the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger potential spread.”
Along with covid-19 and monkey pox, the case of polio gives the United States three worrisome viral diseases that didn’t exist here just over two years ago.
Highly contagious, polio was a terrifying, sometimes deadly scourge before a vaccine was developed in 1955. In about 5 out of 1,000 cases, it causes permanent paralysis in people who have not been fully vaccinated.
Most of the US population is protected from the disease by childhood vaccinations. But in areas with low vaccination coverage, such as the Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, unvaccinated people are at high risk. There is no treatment for polio.
In New York City, according to Friday’s press release, 86.2% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years have received three doses of polio vaccine. “Of particular concern,” it added, are neighborhoods where childhood vaccination rates are less than 70 percent.
Genetic sequencing for the Rockland County case, conducted by the New York State Public Health Laboratory and confirmed by the CDC, revealed a type of poliovirus that indicates transmission from someone who has received the oral polio vaccine, according to a health warning issued in July. The oral vaccine, which is not administered in the United States, uses a weakened virus to boost the immune system’s protection against infection.
In rare cases, an unvaccinated person can become infected that way, with the virus eventually returning to full strength, known as neurovirulence, according to Orange County Health Commissioner Irina Gelman.
In her county, which is also home to a large Orthodox Jewish population, only 58.7 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Friday’s press release, significantly less than New York state, a total of about 80 percent. rockland County has a 60.3 percent vaccination rate, officials said.
The last naturally occurring cases of polio in the United States were recorded in 1979.
On Wednesday, the Rockland County outbreak caused few outward signs of concern. In four community health centers in Spring Valley, Monsey and Pomona, there were no signs urging unvaccinated residents to get free injections, despite vaccination rates of about 60 percent in the county.
Most clinics were quiet and empty, although the sidewalks in the Orthodox Jewish enclaves of Spring Valley and Monsey were lined with mothers pushing prams. If they were concerned, they kept it to themselves, with one woman after another saying she had “no opinion about it.”
However, Esther Miller said she felt safe in the continued health of her five children, all of whom have been vaccinated against polio and other childhood diseases.
“It’s up to parents to keep their kids healthy,” says the 35-year-old Spring Valley resident, an Orthodox Jew. “Giving vaccinations is what you can do to protect them. My mother had all her children vaccinated. She was right on top of it. I do the same.”
Local officials said misinformation about vaccines contributed to low compliance. The polio vaccination rate among children in the county, which has the largest Orthodox population in the country, is only 42 percent, and nearly 30 percent of Rockland County’s total population is under the age of 18.
London officials announced on Wednesday that they are offering polio booster vaccines to children aged 1 to 9 after traces of polio virus were found in wastewater from the British capital in June. The UK Health Security Agency said on Wednesday that the vaccination program will start in areas where traces of the virus have been detected and vaccination rates are low.
The discovery in June prompted the United Kingdom to declare a rare “national incident”. No cases have been reported. The United Kingdom was declared polio-free by the World Health Organization in 2003.
Adela Suliman and Rachel Pannett contributed from London