Polio case in New York is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, hundreds could be infected

Digitally generated image of polio virus 3D molecular model

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Hundreds of people could have polio after an adult in the New York metropolitan area caught the virus and suffered paralysis last month, the state’s top health official said this week.

New York State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett warned that the confirmed case of polio in an unvaccinated adult, associated with detection of the virus in sewage outside the largest city in the country, could indicate that a larger epidemic is underway.

“Based on past polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every case of paralytic polio observed, there may be hundreds more people infected,” Bassett said. “Coupled with the latest sewage findings, the department is treating the single polio case as the tip of the iceberg of a much larger potential spread.

Bassett said it is crucial that children are vaccinated before they are 2 months old, and all adults – including pregnant women – who have not received their shots should do so immediately.

“As we learn more, what we know is clear: the danger of polio is present in New York City today,” Bassett said.

New York state health officials confirmed last month that an unvaccinated adult in Rockland County had contracted polio and was hospitalized with paralysis. Health officials then found three positive samples for polio in sewage from Rockland County and four positive samples in sewage from adjacent Orange County.

Sewage samples that test positive for polio are genetically linked to the strain that the unvaccinated adult caught. The results do not indicate the person who caught polio was the source of transmission, but local spread may be underway, health officials said.

“These results provide further evidence of local – not international – transmission of a polio virus that can cause paralysis and potential community spread, underscoring the urgency for every adult and child in New York to get vaccinated,” the New York State Department of Health said.

Rockland County has a 60% polio vaccination rate, while Orange County has a 58% vaccination rate, according to health officials. The statewide polio vaccination rate is nearly 79%.

The United States was declared polio-free in 1979 and no cases have appeared in the country since then, but travelers have occasionally brought the virus into the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York last confirmed a case of polio in 1990 and the United States previously confirmed a case in 2013, according to state health officials.

Children should receive four doses of polio vaccine. The first dose should be given at 2 months of age, the second dose at 4 months, the third at 18 months and the fourth at 6 years of age, according to state health officials. Unvaccinated adults should receive three doses.

Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious and devastating virus that can cause paralysis. The virus struck fear into the hearts of parents in the 1940s before vaccines were available. More than 35,000 people became paralyzed each year from poliomyelitis during this time. But a successful vaccination campaign in the 1950s and 1960s drastically reduced the number of cases.

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