The polio virus has been found in New York City’s wastewater in another sign that the disease, which hadn’t been seen in the U.S. in nearly a decade, is quietly spreading among unvaccinated people, health officials said Friday.
The presence of the virus in the city's wastewater — samples of which were provided to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — suggests likely local circulation of the disease, city and state health departments said. Six positive samples were identified in New York City — two in June and four in July, officials said.
On July 21, the state Health Department reported a case of vaccine-derived polio in a man in his 20s in Rockland County, the first such case since 2013. The individual, health officials said, received the oral polio vaccine, which is no longer authorized or administered in the United States — where only the inactivated polio vaccine has been given since 2000 — suggesting the virus may have originated outside the country.
The individual has developed paralysis, a side effect that is irreversible and affects a small percentage of people who get polio. The disease is fatal for 5-10% of those paralyzed.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The polio virus has been found in six samples in New York City’s wastewater system, suggesting local circulation of the potentially fatal virus
- The discovery comes after the state Health Department reported a polio case of a man in his 20s in Rockland County, the first such case since 2013
- Polio vaccination rates have been lagging in some locations, particularly since the pandemic, with pockets in Brooklyn and Manhattan, below 60%
State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said for every detected case of paralytic polio, hundreds more may be undetected.
“The detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City is alarming, but not surprising," Bassett said. "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.”
'Get vaccinated against polio'
The polio virus was detected in 20 wastewater samples collected in May, June and July in Rockland and Orange counties, both of which have among the state's lowest vaccination rates at or near 60%, according to State Health Department data.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real but the defense is so simple — get vaccinated against polio,” said New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. “With polio circulating in our communities there is simply nothing more essential than vaccinating our children to protect them from this virus, and if you’re an unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated adult, please choose now to get the vaccine. Polio is entirely preventable and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us.”
The statewide average vaccination rate is 78.9% among children who have received three polio immunizations before their second birthday. Nassau and Suffolk have nearly identical vaccination rates of 79.1% while 86.2% of city children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years have received their three doses, data shows.
City data, however, shows pockets in Brooklyn and Manhattan where the vaccination rate is below 60%, putting children in those neighborhoods at risk of contracting the virus.
Inoculation for routinely recommended vaccines has fallen among children in the city since 2019.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday she fears there was “a lapse” in polio vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools closed and children missed pediatric appointments. She urged families to get children immunized, which is required to attend school.
“As a parent, this is a responsibility we're putting on your shoulders right now," Hochul said. "We're asking you to work with us. Make sure that your children are protected, because this is a very, very serious disease."
Immunization saves lives
The Nassau County Department of Health has sent an alert to all health care providers in the county raising awareness of symptoms, diagnosis, prevention and vaccine recommendations.
“Any diagnosis of a disease that is not commonly seen, especially one that has been nearly eradicated in the U.S. like polio, is very concerning and will be taken very seriously by our department," said acting Health Commissioner Andrew Knecht. "Fortunately, we have not had a case in Nassau County in over 20 years due in large part to our county’s polio vaccination rate."
Dr. Shaheda Iftikhar, chief deputy commissioner at the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, says immunization saves lives.
“We strongly urge all of Suffolk County residents to make sure they have received all required immunizations and to check with their children’s health care providers to make sure their children have received all immunizations recommended by CDC and New York State Department of Health,” Iftikhar said.
Based on past outbreaks, it is possible that hundreds of people in the state have gotten polio and don’t know it, officials said.
Disease mostly affects children
Polio was once one of the nation’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis of the arms and legs. The disease mostly affects children.
Most people infected with the virus do not develop symptoms, although some will have a sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea and stomach pain. About one in 25 people with the infection will get viral meningitis and about one in 200 will become paralyzed, officials said.
Vaccines became available in 1955, and a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of U.S. cases to fewer than 100 in the 1960s and less than 10 in the 1970s, according to the CDC.
Children are recommended to 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, according to the State Health Department.
Adults who received a polio vaccine as children should receive a one-time lifetime booster if traveling to an area where there is a virus transmission, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of Africa, officials said.