Dangerous polio outbreak in New York has federal health officials worried

An unvaccinated person in New York’s Rockland County developed paralysis from a polio infection, emphasizing the need to target vaccination efforts to vulnerable communities.

The poliovirus was eliminated in the U.S. and most countries for decades; the infected person is believed to have caught the virus from an international traveler.

Three weeks after the case was announced, the New York State Department of Health said the virus had been found in samples of wastewater from New York City, following detection in samples from Rockland and nearby Orange County since May. Only 60 percent of people in Rockland County and 59 percent of those in Orange County are vaccinated against polio, compared with nearly 80 percent statewide.

Following reports of the dangerous polio outbreak in New York State, the March of Dimes expressed serious concern about the threat to public health as officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe the re-emergence of the disease as, “just the very, very tip of the iceberg.”

An unvaccinated person from Rockland County, New York, has a case of polio and public health experts are working to understand how and where the individual was infected and provide protective measures, such as vaccination services to the community to prevent the spread of polio to under- and unvaccinated individuals.

A polio outbreak may be harder to spot than measles: much like COVID, many polio cases are asymptomatic. Only one in four people who catch the virus develop coldlike symptoms—which likely would not be suspected to be polio—and one in 200 infected people develop paralysis.

The New York State Department of Health said the unvaccinated patient most likely contracted the virus from someone outside of the country who had taken an oral polio vaccine, which hasn’t been authorized for use in the U.S. since 2000.

The oral vaccine, which contains weakened live strains of the virus, that can mutate over time, and behave more like a natural version of the virus and spread to unvaccinated people.

This is defined as a vaccine-derived polio virus case. Had the individual in New York been vaccinated, Eulberg said, this wouldn’t have happened.

The majority of people in the United States have been vaccinated against polio — nearly 93% of children have by the age of two, the CDC says — because many states children require a polio vaccine to attend school. However, some people are granted religious exemptions and a handful of states leave that decision to the parents, Eulberg notes.

Before he took office and faced the challenges of the Great Depression and World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced the challenge of Polio and he founded the March of Dimes, which has funded critical research that led to the polio vaccine in 1955.

“We are deeply concerned about reports that polio is circulating among unvaccinated individuals and urge all eligible people to get vaccinated against the disease,” said March of Dimes Senior Vice President Dr. Zsakeba Henderson. “We recognize that COVID-19 led to a further reduction in routine vaccination rates in the U.S., putting families and communities at risk for deadly, preventable diseases. However, vaccines are among the most effective means of preventing infectious diseases.” “

“This outbreak can be stopped,” said Henderson. “We urge families to speak with their primary care doctor about routine vaccinations they may be missing. March of Dimes believes the health and wellbeing of all communities depends on the collective immunity provided by high immunization rates.”””

March of Dimes has a proud history of supporting vaccines from the polio epidemic to our advocacy to eliminate non-medical exemptions so that all Americans get their vaccines.  More recently the organization fought to expedite research that would fast track the development of a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe for pregnant and lactating women, which we now have.

The Vaccines for Children Program provides recommended vaccines at no cost to children. More information on vaccines and links to find local providers who deliver no cost vaccines to eligible families is available at www.marchofdimes.org/vaccines

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