NEW YORK (AP) — The virus that causes polio has been found in New York City sewage in another sign that the disease, not seen in the U.S. in a decade, is quietly spreading among unvaccinated people, said health officials Friday.
The presence of the polio virus in the city’s wastewater suggests likely local spread of the virus, city health authorities, New York state and the federal government said.
Authorities urged parents to have their children vaccinated against the potentially fatal disease.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real, but the defense is so simple: Get vaccinated against polio,” said New York Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan. “Now that polio is circulating in our communities, there is simply nothing more essential than vaccinating our children to protect them from this virus, and if you are an unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated adult, choose now to get the vaccine. Polio is completely preventable and its return should be a call to action for all of us.”
dr. José R. Romero, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said, “This is sobering; we know that polio is spreading silently, and it is likely that many people in these communities are infected with polio and are shedding the virus. This is also an urgent and living reminder of the importance of vaccination.”
New York City is forced to face polio as city health officials struggle to vaccinate vulnerable populations against monkey pox and adapt to changing COVID-19 guidelines.
“We are dealing with a trifecta,” Mayor Eric Adams told CNN on Friday. “COVID is still very much present. Polio, we’ve been diagnosed with polio in our sewers, and we’re still dealing with the monkeypox crisis. But the team is here. And we are coordinating and addressing the threats as they come before us, and we are ready to address them with the help of Washington, DC.”
The announcement about the polio virus discovery in New York City comes shortly after UK health authorities reported finding evidence of the virus spreading in London but finding no human cases. Children aged 1-9 in London were eligible for booster doses of a polio vaccine Wednesday.
In New York, a person was paralyzed by a polio infection in Rockland County weeks ago, north of the city. Wastewater samples collected in both Rockland and adjacent Orange County in June were found to contain the virus.
CDC officials said the virus identified in wastewater samples collected in New York City did not contain enough genetic material to determine whether they were related to the Rockland County patient.
Most people infected with polio have no symptoms, but can still pass the virus on to others for days or weeks. Vaccination offers strong protection, and authorities urged people who had not yet received the injections to seek one immediately.
Based on past outbreaks, it’s possible hundreds of people in the state have contracted polio and don’t know it, officials said.
Polio was once one of the country’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis. The disease mainly affects children.
Vaccines became available in 1955, and a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of U.S. cases to less than 100 in the 1960s and less than 10 in the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A small percentage of people who contract polio suffer from paralysis. The disease is fatal for 5-10% of the paralyzed.
All schoolchildren in New York City are required to have a polio vaccine, but Rockland and Orange counties are both known as vaccine resistance centers.
According to the most recent vaccination data from the CDC, about 93% of 2-year-olds had received at least three doses of polio vaccine. But the rate is only 80% in New York state, and much lower in the area where the polio case was reported — just 60% in Rockland County and 59% in Orange County, according to state data.