The US confirmed a case of polio and the possibility of an outbreak in New York, while in the UK the authorities are going to offer all children in London a booster vaccine against polio. We review what is known about the re-emergence of a disease eradicated from the US in 1979.
Not sure if you’ve been vaccinated against polio? It is time to find out, health authorities stress, after a case of polio was detected in New York and the presence of the virus was confirmed in the city’s wastewater, suggesting that there could be many more infections.
“Based on past polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every observed case of paralytic polio, there may be hundreds of others infected,” said New York State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett.
Poliomyelitis is caused by poliovirus, an enterovirus that can infect the nervous system.
Symptoms can range from flu-like (sore throat, fever and fatigue), according to the CDC, to a more serious spinal cord infection causing meningitis and even paralysis.
Poliovirus mainly multiplies in the intestines, and is spread mainly when people don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
Polio is highly contagious, at least to the unvaccinated, especially in areas with poor sanitation and water security.
The paralyzed American contracted a “vaccine-derived” form of polio. This could happen because some countries use a weakened form of the virus to produce their vaccines and in some cases (very rare) they can mutate and be transmitted through poor hygiene to unvaccinated people.
In the US, as in most developed countries, an updated form of the vaccine that does not contain any live virus has been used since the beginning of this century.
Scientists are studying the possible connection between the New York case and traces of poliovirus found in sewage from London and Jerusalem in recent weeks.
Given this scenario, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made an urgent call for unvaccinated people to do so as soon as possible.
The virus spread to panic among parents in the 1940s, before vaccines were available. More than 35,000 people were paralyzed each year by polio during that period.
But a successful vaccination campaign in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically reduced the number of cases until the US was finally declared polio-free in 1979.
Since then, travelers have occasionally brought the virus with them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The last time New York confirmed a case of polio was in 1990 and the United States previously confirmed a case in 2013, according to state health officials.
How do you know if you are vaccinated against polio?
Most American adults were vaccinated against polio during childhood and therefore are highly likely to be protected according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Health authorities recommend that everyone receive the polio vaccine in four doses given at specific intervals between the ages of 2 and 6.
These are a requirement to enter public schools in all states, although some parents use religious or philosophical exceptions to waive them. It is estimated that 93% of Kindergarten students were fully vaccinated against polio for the 2020-2021 school year.
The protection from this vaccine lasts for life. Now, how can adults be sure they received the polio vaccine during childhood?
An important fact to keep in mind is that polio immunization became widely available in the US in 1955. Asking parents or caregivers can help.
Another alternative is to consult doctors or clinics that you have attended during childhood, or even companies that you have worked for that sometimes have vaccination requirements.
If none of this works, one option, albeit a bit more cumbersome, is to request public records from your state’s Department of Health, a process that varies from place to place.
Some 30 such as California or Colorado simplify the process through online applications or through mobile applications that allow digital access to personal health records; but others, like Texas, require sending a fax or email to submit the application, which can take weeks to process, warns a report by NBC News.
The state may not hold the records, as some of these systems were created recently.
If you do find them, do not look for the name of the vaccine under the term ‘polio’, because you will not find it. The acronyms that should appear are those of IPV, initials of (inactivated polio vaccine) or OPV (oral polio vaccine).
Getting vaccinated against polio is a requirement to be a legal immigrant in the US
If you did not live in the US during your childhood, it is always valid to ask your parents or try to contact the health providers who treated you at the time.
Another option is to check if there are official vaccination records in your country that you could consult.
If you have an immigrant visa or you had it when you entered the US, by law you have had to obtain certain vaccines, among which is the polio one.
Can I get another polio vaccine if I can’t confirm it?
When in doubt, if you can’t find a way to confirm if you’re vaccinated, you can get the polio vaccine again.
In these cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends talking to your doctor and discussing this possibility or getting an antibody test that can help determine whether or not someone is vaccinated.
In adults, the vaccine is given in three doses: the second one to two months after the first injection, and the third six to twelve months later.
Those who did not receive the complete doses during their childhood, should receive those that are missing.
The vaccine is highly effective (99%) against severe polio.
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