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New York is worried about a resurgence of polio

published on Saturday 3 September 2022 at 08:45

Brittany Strickland was “scared to death” when she learned this summer that the United States had its first case of polio in nearly a decade, a young New Yorker struck down with paralysis.

“It’s scary. We didn’t think it would happen here,” said the 33-year-old woman, interviewed by AFP in Pomona, a town in New York’s Rockland County, 50km north of Manhattan , said.

“My mother was against vaccines and I realized that I was not vaccinated against polio as a child”, confides this designer who just received her first dose against the polio virus, which practically disappeared.

In mid-August, New York health authorities warned that the poliomyelitis virus, a highly contagious disease transmitted through stool, secretions from the nose and throat or by drinking contaminated water, had been detected in wastewater.

A “worrying but not surprising” discovery, according to authorities, who believe that “the virus is likely circulating locally” and that New Yorkers who have not yet been vaccinated should do so as soon as possible.

Because in mid-July, the very first confirmed case of polio was recorded in Rockland County, the very first in the United States since 2013.

– 60% of children vaccinated –

For New York City, 86% of children six months to five years old received three doses of the vaccine, meaning 14% were not fully protected.

In Rockland County, only 60% of two-year-olds are vaccinated, compared to 79% in New York state as a whole and 92% statewide, according to health officials.

“Worried,” the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) sent experts to New York state this summer to better screen and vaccinate. Because the disease can have “devastating and irreversible consequences”.

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Polio, which mainly affects the very young and causes paralysis, has been virtually eradicated from the world, with the exception of poor countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the United States, whose president Franklin Roosevelt contracted the disease in 1921 at the age of 39, the number of infections decreased in the late 1950s (15,000 cases of paralysis per year at the time) thanks to a first vaccine. .

– Last natural polio in 1979 –

The last natural infection in the country dates from 1979.

But health authorities know that, in rare cases (2% to 4% of a million vaccinated children), unvaccinated people could have been infected by others who had received oral polio vaccine.

This ampoule-administered vaccine has been banned in the United States since 2000.

But the World Health Organization revealed in June that a polio virus variant derived from oral vaccines had been detected in sewage in London.

The analysis of the Rockland case also suggests that the infection of the young New Yorker would have come from a person who had been vaccinated orally.

This oral vaccine replicates in the gut and can be transmitted through wastewater containing fecal material.

However, less virulent than the natural virus, this variant can cause severe symptoms, such as paralysis of the limbs of unvaccinated patients.

And since the Rockland patient did not travel internationally, New York State officials believe the disease was transmitted locally within the state.

– Orthodox Jews –

In this quiet, green and wooded neighborhood lives a large Orthodox Jewish community. And according to local publications, Rockland’s patient is an Orthodox Jewish American in his twenties.

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As health communicator Shoshana Bernstein admits, her community is traditionally vaccine-averse, but like “any isolated, closed group.”

However, Ms. Bernstein conveys the message, as did a dozen rabbis in a letter to the Jews of Rockland last week: you must be vaccinated.

It also relies on “the oldest Jews” who remember the polio of the 1950s and can convince the youngest recalcitrants.

More pessimistically, virologist John Dennehy, of New York University, fears that Rockland’s case is “the tip of the iceberg” when he believed the “virus was heading for extinction”.

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