The tip of the iceberg.
That's how New York health officials have described the threat of polio as the virus has been detected in wastewater samples, and the single confirmed case the state knows about could result in hundreds more. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just sent a team to investigate the known polio case — a Rockland man who was not vaccinated against the disease. The concern, and even alarm, has become palpable, as health officials now try to vaccinate as many people as they can as quickly as possible.
Rockland's polio case, and the swift reaction, illustrates the importance of vaccination, particularly against deadly and debilitating diseases many of us thought were eradicated by those vaccines themselves.
Public health officials, physicians and scientists are pushing against some strong, scary headwinds — the winds of those who oppose vaccination, don't believe in the science of immunization or the importance of public health and don't think vaccines should be required to attend school or hold a certain job.
In the wake of the state's measles outbreak in 2018, many opposed to vaccination and vaccine requirements coalesced, using social media to find one another, trumpet sometimes factually inaccurate theories and fears, amplify their dangerous messaging and galvanize against attempts to expand vaccination efforts. In response to the outbreak, state lawmakers banned the religious exemption that had been in place for children seeking to attend school without being vaccinated — a ban vaccine opponents desperately tried to stop, albeit unsuccessfully.
Then came COVID-19. Those same groups reemerged, rejecting even the idea of the COVID-19 vaccine, saying it was dangerous and telling others not to get the shots even as the vaccine prevented serious illness and death. The rumors flew, leading some to hesitate before giving their children the vaccine, or taking it themselves. That uncertainty remains today, as only 3.1% of children under 5 in Nassau and Suffolk counties have received their first shots, even though those same young children were hospitalized more than any other pediatric age group during the pandemic's last wave.
Now, those who oppose vaccination and vaccination mandates are taking center stage again. They're supporting candidates who oppose vaccine mandates and asking state politicians to support a concept called "informed consent" — which could become a widespread exemption that could allow once-eradicated, frightening, deadly diseases to reemerge, including polio, measles and others.
Many in the anti-vaccine movement argue that immunization is not a public health issue. On that, they're wrong. The existing mandates for vaccination for schoolchildren, health professionals and others exist to protect them, as well as those who are immunocompromised and cannot be vaccinated. The frantic effort to address polio's sudden return should remind us why vaccination remains so important and why we must push back on anti-science, anti-vaccination rhetoric, to protect our children and ourselves.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.