Poliovirus spreads across the US


Eli Duke | Flickr

Alvi Khan

On Sept. 9, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul declared a statewide public health emergency after poliovirus was detected in various wastewater supplies across the state. Specifically, the virus was detected in over 69 sewage samples in regions such as Rockland County, Orange County and New York City. After the introduction of the polio vaccine, infection rates exponentially declined, which brings up concerns for why there has been such a sudden resurgence in the contagious disease.

To address these concerns, the pathology of polio must be explored and how it led to a nationwide public health emergency in the United States.

Poliovirus is an enterovirus, “entero” meaning intestine, responsible for causing poliomyelitis, the disease more commonly known as polio. It is a highly contagious disease that primarily spreads airborne and through contact with stool. Those infected with polio may exhibit symptoms from fevers and fatigue to more severe symptoms such as paralysis and muscle atrophy.

Due to the disease’s highly infectious nature, over 35,000 Americans were infected every year in the 1940s and 1950s— the height of its impact. Many of the afflicted were adults, most of whom were left with paralysis. As a result, both state and federal governments took strict measures to combat the disease, such as ensuring public sanitation and sewage disposal were being properly conducted.

However, after American virologist Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine, the debilitating disease started to wane. This was a major accoplishment for the entire world because it was a major factor in slowing down the spread of polio and set the course for virtually eradicating it. In fact, according to the CDC, polio has been eliminated from the United States since 1979.

Although the dangers of polio and the benefits of the vaccine are clear, there are many Americans who have chosen not to take it. Many experts consider this to be the reason behind the recent resurgence in polio cases since the majority of Americans are vaccinated against the disease, which only leaves a minority to possibly be infected.

But this minority does not consist of only individuals.

There are multiple communities in the U.S. that are not vaccinated against polio, such as certain religious communities. For example, in Amish communities in New York State, only 9% of children were properly vaccinated against polio, which starkly contrasts with the 99% child vaccination rate statewide. Due to these poor vaccination rates, communities such as the Amish are at a high risk of catching polio and possibly furthering its transmission.

Even though the recent polio outbreak may be worrisome for many, there are numerous measures being implemented to prevent it from causing further harm in the state and in the country.

Namely, Gov. Hochul established a goal of boosting the statewide polio vaccination rate from 79% to 90%. To ensure this goal is met, local health departments have been tasked with administering vaccines and providing any care for those who may be exposed to poliovirus. Moreover, pharmacists, EMTs and other health professionals have been allowed to administer vaccines, per Gov. Hochul’s Executive Order 21.

To prevent further cases of polio, government officials could raise awareness surrounding the media by which poliovirus spreads and the symptoms of the disease. Doing so would encourage New Yorkers and Americans to engage in preventive measures, such as wearing a mask, to prevent further spread of the disease.

Additionally, government officials could work alongside pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to produce any medications or novel vaccines to aid those suffering from the virus. This would allow those afflicted to have a speedier recovery and those unafflicted to have better protection against the virus.

The resurgence of a disease widely considered to have been eradicated can certainly be worrisome for everyone. But, if proper measures are taken to combat it and if common people all work together, it is strongly possible to put an end to this once-forgotten virus.