Health chief warns polio case could be ‘tip of iceberg’

New York state health officials on Thursday stepped up their push for people who haven’t been immunized against polio to get vaccinated “immediately,” saying the only confirmed case of the disease found in the state may be ” the tip of the iceberg” of a much broader threat.

The urgent call came as officials said polio had been detected in sewage samples taken at multiple locations and at different times in two counties north of New York City, which could indicate the spread of the disease in the community.

“Based on past polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every case of paralytic polio seen, there may be hundreds of people infected,” Dr. Mary T. Bassett, the state health commissioner, said in a statement.

“Coupled with the latest sewage findings,” Dr. Bassett added, “the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger potential spread.”

Poliomyelitis is caused by the poliovirus and children under 5 years of age are most at risk of contracting it, but anyone who is not vaccinated is at risk. Polio is highly contagious and usually spreads from person to person when someone comes into contact with the stool of an infected person and then touches their mouth.

Many cases are asymptomatic and some can cause flu-like symptoms, but the disease, also known as polio, can be disabling and even life-threatening. There is no cure.

Paralysis is a rare outcome, but before vaccines became widely available in the 1950s, polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year.

Last month, a case of polio, the first reported in the United States in nearly a decade, was identified in an unvaccinated adult male in Rockland County. No case had originated in the United States since 1979.

State and county health officials said the infection in Rockland County was transmitted from someone who received the oral polio vaccine, which has not been given in the United States since 2000.

The virus circulating in New York may have originated outside the United States, where the oral vaccine is still administered, officials said. The oral vaccine contains weakened virus. It is safe, but if the vaccine-derived virus circulates in a community, it can infect unvaccinated people and spread disease.

In announcing the case, officials stressed that the infected person was no longer contagious and said their efforts would focus on increasing vaccination rates and determining if anyone else might have been affected.

Officials said polio had been found in Rockland County sewage samples taken in June, before the polio case was confirmed. On Thursday, they said evidence of the disease had also been found in sewage samples taken in June and July from two “geographically different” parts of Orange County, which adjoins Rockland.

“The findings,” the state Department of Health said in a news release, “provide further evidence of local, not international, transmission of a polio virus.”

There was no indication that the infected man in Rockland County was the source of the polio found in the sewage samples, officials said. The investigation into the origin of the virus continues.

Because widespread vaccination has been shown to be an effective prevention strategy, areas with low immunization rates may be at particular risk of an outbreak.

In Rockland and Orange counties, about 60% of 2-year-olds have received all three doses of the polio vaccine, according to state data, a rate considerably lower than the 80% in the rest of the state except New York City. (To achieve herd immunity against polio, the target vaccination rate is 80 percent, according to the World Health Organization.)

Most adults in the United States do not need to be vaccinated against polio because they were likely vaccinated as children, although some may be eligible for booster shots if they are at increased risk of exposure.

Leave a Comment