‘Hundreds’ of New Yorkers may already be infected with polio, Empire state health chief warns


New York officials warn hundreds of Empire State residents may already be infected with the devastating polio virus after it was discovered in the sewage water of a second county in the state.

State surveillance discovered the presence of the polio virus in June and July in at least two different areas of Orange County, New York — about an hour’s drive from New York City. It comes within weeks of officials announcing a confirmed polio case in Rockland County — just northwest of the Bronx borough of the Big Apple. The virus was also found in Rockland’s wastewater last month.

Since polio is asymptomatic in most cases, it is likely that the detection of one symptomatic case means there could be hundreds of others that will never be detected. Finding the virus in wastewater samples in multiple counties confirms fears that the virus had been spreading in the state for some time before the Rockland case was discovered.

Officials are urging the population to get vaccinated to prevent a re-emergence of the devastating virus. Orange and Rockland are both among the counties with the lowest vaccination rates against the virus — 59 and 60 percent, respectively. A person who has already been vaccinated is not at any risk.

New York officials warn 'hundreds' of New Yorkers may already be infected with polio after at least three wastewater samples are detected in two counties just outside New York City (file photo)

New York officials warn ‘hundreds’ of New Yorkers may already be infected with polio after at least three wastewater samples are detected in two counties just outside New York City (file photo)

Rockland County (pictured) registered a case of polio in an unvaccinated man last month

Rockland County (pictured) registered a case of polio in an unvaccinated man last month

Rockland County (pictured) registered a case of polio in an unvaccinated man last month

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

“Combined with the latest wastewater findings, the Department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger potential spread.

Polio: Once America’s Most Feared Disease, Now a Rarity

Polio is a serious viral infection that used to be common around the world.

The virus lives in the throat and gut for up to six weeks, with patients being most contagious from seven to 10 days before and after the onset of symptoms.

But it can spread to the spinal cord and cause muscle weakness and paralysis.

The virus is more common in infants and young children and occurs under poor hygiene.

How deadly is it?

Most people show no signs of infection at all, but about one in 20 people have minor symptoms such as fever, muscle weakness, headache, nausea and vomiting.

About one in 50 patients develops severe muscle pain and stiffness in the neck and back.

Less than one percent of polio cases lead to paralysis and one in ten of those leads to death.

Of those who develop symptoms, they usually appear three to 21 days after infection and include:

  • High temperature
  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • sore muscles
  • Nausea and vomiting

How does it spread?

People can contract polio from airborne droplets when someone coughs or sneezes, or when they come into contact with the feces of an infected person.

This includes food, water, clothing or toys.

Are there different tribes?

There are three types of “wild” polio, which have been largely eradicated in Europe, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific.

Types 2 and 3 were eliminated thanks to a global mass vaccine campaign, with the latest cases being discovered in 1999 and 2012, respectively.

The remaining, type 1, wild polio remains endemic in only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Wild polio has been eradicated in almost every country in the world thanks to vaccines.

But the global rollout has spawned new types of strains known as vaccine-derived polioviruses.

These are strains that were initially used in live vaccines, but made their way into the community and evolved to behave more like the wild version.

Does Polio Still Exist in the US?

The last case of person-to-person transmission in the US was in 1979, which was also the last case of wild polio.

But since then, there have been several dozen cases of vaccine-derived polioviruses, albeit one-off, with no further transmission.

Am I vaccinated against polio?

Americans have been offered the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) since 2000.

It is given as four doses, with the first shot at two months of age. It is also administered at ages four, six to 18 months, and four to six years.

Take-up has fallen slightly, but remains above 90 percent nationally.

There are concerns that vaccine hesitancy has increased during the Covid crisis due to the spread of misinformation about shots for that virus and school closures.

“As we learn more, what we do know is clear: the danger of polio is present in New York today. We need to accommodate this moment by ensuring that adults, including pregnant people, and young children as young as 2 months old are aware of their immunization.”

New York State officials launched polio surveillance efforts in response to the case, which was confirmed on July 21.

The case was confirmed in an Orthodox Jewish man in his twenties. He has not been vaccinated himself and has contracted the vaccine-derived version of the virus.

Vaccine-derived polio can form when a person receives a live virus vaccine — an oral immunization that can pass the virus to others through fecal contamination.

That vaccine is no longer used in America, meaning it was likely transmitted from a person who received it abroad and eventually returned to this man from New York.

He suffered paralysis as a result of his infection and is now recovering at home after a hospital stay. Earlier this week, it was reported that he still has trouble walking.

Given his lack of international travel during the standard infection period, it is likely that he contracted the virus in the US. This warned officials to begin surveillance.

Wastewater sampling detected polio in Rockland county in June. It was also detected in Orange County in June and July.

“Given how quickly polio can spread, now is the time for every adult, parent and guardian to get themselves and their children vaccinated as soon as possible,” Basset said.

Polio is a potentially debilitating and life-threatening disease, which in severe cases can spread to the spinal cord causing paralysis and even death.

It is highly contagious and spreads after someone touches a surface contaminated with an infected person’s feces and then their own mouth.

About one in four people who contract the virus develop flu-like symptoms, including sore throat, fever, fatigue and stomach pain.

One in 25 will develop meningitis – when the spinal cord is infected – and later paralysis. Of these, up to one in ten die from the infection.

It was once the most feared disease in the US and caused panic in the 1940s.

Parents were afraid to let their kids play outside — especially in the summer when the virus seemed to be more prevalent — and public health officials would impose quarantines on homes and even entire towns where it was noticed.

It caused more than 15,000 paralysis a year and hundreds of deaths.

But in the mid-1950s, the country began rolling out poliovirus vaccines to prevent the disease.

In 1979, the United States declared that the virus had been eliminated. Since then, no transmission on US soil has been known.

The vaccine was also rolled out worldwide, pushing the virus back to just a few countries.

It is now only known to circulate in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The WHO warns that as long as it continues to spread there, it will remain a threat to the world.

But in recent years — as the virus has receded from national memory — vaccination coverage in the United States has slowed.

The latest figures show that approximately 92.6 percent of Americans have now been vaccinated against polio on their second birthday.

This is below the 95 percent threshold required by the WHO to stop an outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all children receive the polio vaccine.

It is given as four injections into the leg or arm, with the first given at two months of age, the second at four months, the third between six and 18 months, and the last dose between four and six years of age.

The vaccine is very effective: 99 percent of children are protected against the disease for life.