The virus that causes polio has been identified in New York City’s wastewater weeks after a case of polio was identified in Rockland County, north of the city, health officials announced Friday.
The presence of the poliovirus in the city’s wastewater suggests likely local circulation of the virus, the city and New York state health departments said.
“Polio can lead to paralysis and even death,” the departments said in a tweet. “We urge unvaccinated New Yorkers to get vaccinated now.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said the detection of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City is “alarming, but not surprising.”
“The best way to keep adults and children polio-free is through safe and effective immunization – New Yorkers’ greatest protection against the worst outcomes of polio, including permanent paralysis and even death,” Bassett said.
The announcement comes after British health authorities reported finding evidence the virus has spread in London but found no cases in people. Children ages 1-9 in London were made eligible for booster doses of a polio vaccine Wednesday.
Earlier this month, New York state health officials said they found indications of additional cases of poliovirus in wastewater samples from two different counties, leading them to warn that hundreds of people may be infected with the potentially serious virus.
Last month, the New York Health Department reported the nation’s first case of polio in almost a decade, in Rockland County. Officials said that case occurred in a previously healthy young adult who was unvaccinated and developed paralysis in their legs.
“The risk to New Yorkers is real but the defense is so simple – get vaccinated against polio,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said in a statement Friday. “With polio circulating in our communities there is simply nothing more essential than vaccinating our children to protect them from this virus, and if you’re an unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated adult, please choose now to get the vaccine. Polio is entirely preventable and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us.”
Most people infected with polio have no symptoms but can still give the virus to others for days or weeks. Vaccination offers strong protection and authorities urged people who haven’t gotten the shots to seek one immediately.
Based on past outbreaks, it is possible that hundreds of people in the state have gotten polio and don’t know it, officials said.
Polio was once one of the nation’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis. The disease mostly affects children.
Vaccines became available starting in 1955, and a national vaccination campaign cut the annual number of U.S. cases to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A small percentage of people who polio suffer paralysis. The disease is fatal for between 5-10% of those paralyzed.
All schoolchildren in New York are required to have a polio vaccine, but Rockland and Orange counties are both known as centers of vaccine resistance.