New York worries about a resurgence of polio

AFP, published on Saturday September 03, 2022 at 08:45

Brittany Strickland was "scared to death" when she learned this summer that the United States had recorded its first case of poliomyelitis in nearly ten years, 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, 50 km north of Manhattan.

"My mother was opposed to vaccines and I realized that as a child, I had not been vaccinated against polio", confides this designer who has just received her first dose against the polio virus, which had practically disappeared .

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

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

Because in mid-July, a very first proven 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 have received three doses of the vaccine, which means that 14% are 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% nationwide, according to health officials.

"Concerned", the Federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) dispatched experts to New York State this summer to better screen and vaccinate. Because the disease can have "devastating and irreversible consequences".

Polio, which mainly strikes the very young and causes paralysis, has practically been eradicated in 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 contaminations declined at the end of the 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 the health authorities know that, in rare cases (2% to 4% out of a million vaccinated children), unvaccinated people could have been contaminated by others who had received oral poliomyelitis vaccine.

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

But the World Health Organization revealed in June that a poliovirus 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 come from a person who had been vaccinated orally.

This oral vaccine replicates in the gut and can be transmitted through sewage containing fecal matter.

Less virulent than the natural virus, this variant can however cause serious symptoms, such as paralysis of the limbs of unvaccinated patients.

And since the Rockland patient has not traveled internationally, New York State officials believe the disease was transmitted locally in the county.

- Orthodox Jews -

In this quiet, green and wooded residential suburb, resides a large Orthodox Jewish community. And according to local publications, Rockland's patient is an Orthodox Jewish American in his twenties.

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

Ms. Bernstein, however, conveys the message, like a dozen rabbis last week in a letter to the Jews of Rockland: you have to get vaccinated.

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

More pessimistic, virologist John Dennehy, from New York University, fears that Rockland's case is "the tip of the iceberg" when he believed the "virus was on the way to extinction".