Poliovirus has been detected in wastewater samples in New York City, suggesting likely local circulation of the virus, according to state and local health officials.
“We are dealing with a trifecta. Covid is still plenty. Polio, we have detected polio in our sewer. And we’re still dealing with the monkeypox crisis,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Friday on CNN’s New Day. “We are addressing the threats as they come before us and we are prepared to address them and with the help of Washington, DC.”
In a statement about the wastewater find, New York officials underlined the urgency of staying on top of polio vaccinations, especially for those in the greater New York metro area.
Most people in the US are protected against polio because of vaccination. The primary series of three vaccines provides 99% protection. However, unvaccinated and undervaccinated people are vulnerable.
“For every identified case of paralytic polio, hundreds more may go undetected,” said state health commissioner Dr. Mary T Bassett. “The detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City is alarming, but not surprising.”
The virus usually spreads through the stool and, in less common circumstances, when a person infected with the polio virus sneezes or coughs. According to the World Health Organization, about 90% of people with polio have no visible symptoms. Some have flu-like symptoms such as sore throat, fever, fatigue, and nausea.
About 1 in 25 people will develop viral meningitis, an infection of the covering of the spinal cord and/or brain, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 1 in 200 people will become paralyzed and unable to move parts of their body or will feel some kind of weakness in their arms, legs, or both. Even children who fully recover from the initial illness can develop muscle pain and weakness years later.
Paralysis can lead to permanent disability and death, as it can affect the muscles used for breathing.
City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said that with the 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 it now.” to get the vaccine.”
The wastewater finding comes after the identification of a case of paralytic polio in a Rockland County, New York, resident on July 21 and the detection in wastewater samples in May, June and July from Rockland and Orange counties.
A CDC official told CNN this week that the Rockland County case was “just the tip of the iceberg” and suggested there are “several hundred cases circulating in the community.”
The agency sent a team of disease detectives to Rockland County last week to investigate the case and assist with vaccination. A community health leader who met the team told CNN the researchers are “quite nervous” that polio “could get out of hand very quickly and we could have a crisis.”
Before the invention of the vaccine, polio was considered “one of the most feared diseases in the United States,” according to the CDC. In the 1940s, an average of more than 35,000 people were disabled each year in the US. When the polio vaccine became available in 1955, the number of cases dropped significantly.
The last case in the US was reported nearly a decade ago.
Officials say routine vaccination rates among New York City children have fallen since 2019, noting that only 86.2% of NYC children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years have received three doses of the polio vaccine, meaning that almost 14% is not fully protected .
Some children have missed vaccination appointments because of the pandemic. Others live in small groups of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York, including Rockland County, who have decided not to vaccinate their children. Others in Rockland’s religious Jewish community have embraced efforts to partner with public health officials to educate those who refuse to vaccinate their children.
Vaccination coverage is significantly lower in some areas of New York City than in the rest of the city. In Williamsburg, for example, only 56.3% of children are vaccinated. In Battery Park City, it’s 58%. In Bedford-Stuyvesant/Ocean Hill/Brownsville it is 58.4%. Nationally, the vaccination rate for children is almost 93%.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real, but the defense is so simple: Get vaccinated against polio,” said Vasan, the city’s public health commissioner. “Polio is completely preventable and its return should be a call to action for all of us.”