Polio Now Detected in NYC Sewage; State Identifies More Than 20 Samples of Concern

Friday's development comes days after New York state warned hundreds of people locally could be infected, and the latest news comes with the reveal that nearly two dozen positive samples have already been found

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What to Know

  • Poliovirus has now been detected in at least six NYC sewage samples, further evidence community spread of the once-dreaded childhood disease is underway in the Empire State
  • No new confirmed cases have been reported. There's only one -- a Rockland County patient, and investigators say there's no evidence that person is the source of the transmission. Polio has also been found in Orange County
  • The confirmed NY case involved a vaccine-derived strain of the virus that indicates it would have been contracted by someone who had a live vaccine, which the US hasn't used for some time. In rare instances, experts say people given the live virus can spread it to other people who haven’t been vaccinated.

The virus that causes paralytic polio infections has been detected in New York City wastewater samples, state and city health officials jointly announced Friday, sounding the latest in a series of escalating alarms about potentially ongoing community spread of the once-dreaded childhood disease declared eradicated in the United States more than 40 years ago.

Concerns about the re-emergence of another viral scourge started to intensify over the summer, when wastewater samples detected polio in London and in Israel. Then, New York confirmed the first U.S. polio case in decades, in an unvaccinated Rockland County man who had a strain of the virus that likely came from a live vaccine used only outside America. More wastewater samples yielded more worrisome links, health officials recently said, and more evidence of community spread.

Polio can lead to permanent paralysis of the arms and legs and even death in some cases. And yet, New York City kids are increasingly less likely to get their routine vaccines since 2019, "putting us at risk for outbreaks and devastating complications of vaccine-preventable diseases," health officials said in their news update on Friday.

As of Friday, CDC analysis confirms the presence of poliovirus in 20 samples genetically linked to the Rockland County patient. Of those samples, 13 were collected in Rockland County in May, June and July, and seven samples were collected last month in neighboring Orange County. Six positive samples of concern -- two collected in June, two collected in July -- have now been identified in New York City, health officials say. While they haven't yet been genetically linked to the Rockland case, sequencing analysis shows they appear to be vaccine-derived strains or variants or another kind of polio that can cause illness in humans.

Polio has now been found in wastewater samples from two different locations in Orange County, raising concerns that the virus is spreading, Sarah Wallace reports.

There's no evidence to indicate the Rockland County patient is the source of the community transmission, officials say. The investigation into the source is ongoing.

"For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected," State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a statement. "The detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City is alarming, but not surprising. Already, the State Health Department – working with local and federal partners – is responding urgently, continuing case investigation and aggressively assessing spread."

"The best way to keep adults and children polio-free is through safe and effective immunization – New Yorkers’ greatest protection against the worst outcomes of polio, including permanent paralysis and even death," Bassett added.

Just 86.2% of NYC children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years have had three doses of the polio vaccine and nearly 14% aren't fully protected, health officials say. Neighborhoods where vaccine coverage rates are lower than 70% for those aged kids put kids at higher risk for contracting polio, they added. Most NYC kids are already vaccinated against polio. It's one of the immunizations required to attend public schools. The CDC says 99% of kids who get all recommended doses are protected.

"As a parent, this is a responsibility we're putting on your shoulders. We're asking you to work with us," said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. "Make sure your kids are protected because this is a very serious disease."

Polio is the state of paralysis caused by the highly contagious poliovirus. Here’s what you need to know to protect your family.

New Polio Scares

Last week, New York state health officials warned "hundreds" of people could be infected locally.

The state health department, which launched wastewater surveillance earlier this month after officials announced the first confirmed U.S. polio case in nearly a decade in an unvaccinated patient in Rockland County on July 21, recently said the CDC confirmed polio virus in samples taken from June and July in two geographically different locations of Orange County.

While there are no active confirmed polio cases in Orange County or New York City, based on the data available, the former has a much lower three-dose vaccination rate among kids younger than 2 (58.68%) than the state average (78.96%) as of Aug. 1. Rockland County's three-dose rate for those children is 60.34%, officials said.

Polio can lead to permanent paralysis of the arms and legs and can be fatal due to paralysis in the muscles used to breathe or swallow, officials say. Most people infected with the virus do not have any symptoms, though some will have flu-like symptoms, like sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea and stomach pain. One in 25 people with infection with get viral meningitis and about one in 200 will become paralyzed. While there is no cure for polio, it is preventable through safe and effective immunization.

How to Protect Yourself From Polio

The most important way for children and adults to protect themselves from polio is to get vaccinated right away if they have not received all recommended polio vaccine doses. Health officials have increased communication to healthcare providers, stressing the importance of timely administration of the polio vaccine among their patients. In accordance with CDC:

  • All children should get four doses of the polio vaccine, with the first dose given at 6 weeks through 2 months of age, followed by one dose given at 4 months of age, 6 through 18 months old, and 4 through 6 years old.
  • People who are unvaccinated or are unsure if they have been immunized should receive a total of 3 doses if starting the vaccine series after age 4.
  • Adults who have only had 1 or 2 doses of the polio vaccine in the past should get the remaining 1 or 2 doses – it does not matter how long it has been since the earlier doses.

Most adults do not need another dose because they were already vaccinated as children. New Yorkers who are not up-to-date with vaccination should speak to their healthcare providers or their child’s provider to schedule an appointment for vaccination against polio and other dangerous diseases, such as measles, mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox and COVID-19.

If you don't have a provider, call 311 or 844-NYC-4NYC (844-692-4692) for help finding one. Care is provided in New York City regardless of immigration status, insurance or ability to pay. Also, children ages 4 years and older can get low- or no-cost vaccines at the NYC Health Department’s Fort Greene Health Center at 295 Flatbush Ave. Ext., Fifth Floor, Brooklyn, NY, from Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. To make an appointment, visit nyc.gov and search "immunization clinic."

Learn more about polio vaccination rates and wastewater surveillance here.

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