Health · August 5, 2022

New York polio case tip of iceberg, hundreds more could be infected

Hundreds of other people could have polio after an adult in suburban New York City contracted the virus and became paralyzed 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, coupled with detection of the virus in sewage outside the country’s largest city, could indicate a larger outbreak is underway.

“Based on past polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every case of paralytic polio seen, there may be hundreds of other people infected,” Bassett said. “In conjunction with the latest findings on wastewater, the Department is treating the individual case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg with a much larger potential spread.”

Bassett said it is crucial that children are vaccinated by the age of two months and all adults – including pregnant women – who have not received their vaccinations should do so immediately.

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

New York state health officials confirmed last month that an unvaccinated adult in Rockland County, a suburb of New York City, had contracted polio and was hospitalized with paralysis. Health officials subsequently found three positive polio samples in Rockland County sewage and four positive samples in Orange County sewage.

The sewage samples that tested positive for polio are genetically linked to the strain that the unvaccinated adult contracted. The results do not suggest that the person who contracted 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 poliovirus that can cause debilitation and potential community spread, and underscore the urgency for every adult and child in New York to be vaccinated,” the Department of Health said of New York State.

Rockland County has a 60% polio immunization rate, according to health officials, while Orange County has a 58% immunization rate. This is much lower than the nationwide immunization rate of nearly 79%, officials said.

The U.S. was declared polio-free in 1979 and there hasn’t been a case in the country since then, but travelers have occasionally brought the virus into the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to state health officials, New York last confirmed a case of polio in 1990 and the United States previously in 2013.

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

Polio is a highly contagious, devastating virus that can cause paralysis. The virus terrified parents in the 1940s, before vaccines were available. More than 35,000 people were paralyzed by polio each year during this period. But a successful vaccination campaign in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically reduced the number of cases.