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Polio Outbreak In New York Puts U.S. On List Of Countries Where Virus Circulates, CDC Says

Forbes 9/14/2022 Robert Hart, Forbes Staff

Topline

The United States has joined the World Health Organization’s list of countries where polio is circulating owing to the spread of vaccine-derived virus in New York, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday, marking a new low for the country’s public health efforts and highlighting the dangerous consequences of the growing anti-vaccine movement.

The U.S. has joined the list of countries with circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus. Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. © Provided by Forbes The U.S. has joined the list of countries with circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus. Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Key Facts

The U.S. has met the WHO’s criteria to be added to the list of countries with circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus, the CDC said, which includes Yemen, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana and Eritrea.

It is the only country from the Americas in the list and, alongside the U.K. and Israel, one of the only wealthy nations to feature.

WHO criteria require a country to have detected vaccine-derived poliovirus in at least one environmental sample and one patient to be considered a country with circulating virus, the CDC said.

Wastewater sampling in New York has identified 57 confirmed samples of poliovirus since April and a case of paralytic polio was confirmed in the state’s Rockland County in July, comfortably meeting the organization’s criteria.

No additional cases of polio—the paralytic disease caused by poliovirus—have been reported in the U.S. at this time and CDC continues to recommend polio vaccination for children and adults.

Dr. José R. Romero, Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stressed vaccination as the “safest and best way to fight this debilitating disease.”

Key Background

The addition of the U.S. to the list of countries with circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus signifies the nadir of American public health and the outcome of decades of anti-vaccination rhetoric. Though the U.S. does not use the type of vaccine that can lead to circulating vaccine-derived virus, low immunization rates allow it to spread if it is reintroduced, for example by a traveler. Coverage for polio used to be exceptionally high and the disease was once one of the most feared in the country, striking down and disabling tens of thousands of people, mostly children, every year. Experts warn that coverage has slipped to dangerously low levels amid an onslaught of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, disruptions to routine immunization during the Covid-19 pandemic and distance from the consequences of contracting the virus. There is no cure or treatment for polio and vaccines are safe and have brought the virus—which only lives in humans—to the brink of eradication, though pushing it over the edge has proven tougher than officials hoped. Use of the vaccine is complicated by the fact that one of the two types of vaccines deployed uses a live virus, which has been weakened so it cannot cause paralysis (the other is an inactivated virus shot). The weakened virus can spread in communities with poor immunization levels, which can provide immunity to those who didn’t receive the vaccine but can also mutate into a strain that can cause paralysis in rare circumstances if allowed to spread. Like the original poliovirus, this vaccine-derived strain can circulate in a community and, in some cases, kill or paralyze.

Crucial Quote

“We cannot emphasize enough that polio is a dangerous disease for which there is no cure,” Romero said. “It is imperative that people in these communities who are unvaccinated get up to date on polio vaccination right away.”

Further Reading

Polio Explained: What You Need To Know After Old Threat Was Discovered Spreading In New York, London (Forbes)

Polio: New York Declares Emergency After Virus Found In Fourth County’s Sewage (Forbes)

Polio Is Back in the US and UK. Here’s How That Happened (Wired)

Polio Was Almost Eradicated. This Year It Staged a Comeback. (NYT)

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