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  • An adult with polio is the first person to be diagnosed with the disease in the U.S. since 2013.
  • The man has developed paralysis.
  • Experts say that the disease is spread orally through saliva or fecal matter

Last week the New York Department of Health (NYDOH) announced that an unvaccinated young adult from New York recently contracted polio.

According to health officials, this is the first recorded U.S. case since 2013.

They also say the patient, from Rockland County, NY, developed paralysis after symptoms began about a month ago and had not recently traveled outside the country.

NYSDOH confirmed they’re coordinating with the Rockland County Department of Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOHMH) to continue the case investigation, “proactively respond,” and protect communities against disease spread by urging vaccination.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a statement, said the department of health strongly recommends any unvaccinated person get the polio vaccine as soon as possible.

“The polio vaccine is safe and effective, protecting against this potentially debilitating disease,” she continued. “And it has been part of the backbone of required, routine childhood immunizations recommended by health officials and public health agencies nationwide.”

The polio vaccine is included on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) standard child immunization schedule and part of the required school immunization schedule for all children.

However, NYSDOH cautions Rockland County residents that unvaccinated individuals, including those who are pregnant, have not previously completed their polio vaccine series, or community members concerned they might have been exposed, should be vaccinated.

They add that individuals who are already vaccinated but at risk of exposure should receive a booster.

Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable to be worried.

However, Theodore Strange, MD, Associate Chair of Medicine, Staten Island University Hospital, Staten Island, New York, said the disease isn’t transmitted the same way.

“Back in the 1940s there was a pandemic of this in kids, passed on through what we call the fecal-oral route,” he explained. “It’s not something that’s spread like COVID, a respiratory virus, in other words if you sneeze.”

Strange mentioned the March of Dimes campaign of the late 1930s and into the 1940s, which involved contributing a dime to eradicate polio until vaccines were available.

There are two different types of vaccine: One that can contain a live attenuated virus, which is the oral polio virus, and one with an inactivated virus given as an injection.

Since 2000 the only type of polio vaccine given in the U.S. is the type with inactivated virus.

“About three-quarters of infected patients will have no symptoms,” said Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph and Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California.

Bailey said the remaining quarter could have “transient flu-like symptoms” that include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach upset
  • Sore throat

“A much smaller number, [much less than] 1 in 100, will have neurologic symptoms such as weakness or paralysis,” he said. “These most severe cases [may have] a mortality up to 10 percent.”

“Children under 5 years old constitute the largest at-risk group,” said Regine Cherazard, MD, an internal medicine specialist and director of the residency program at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens. “However, anyone who is unvaccinated may become infected.”

Cherazard said there is still no cure, and treatment involves just treating the symptoms, so prevention is the best strategy.

“Supportive treatment may include pain management, physical therapy, close monitoring of vital signs and mechanical ventilation for respiratory failure,” she said.

Strange said because of our country’s immunization program, this is probably an isolated case – but warned that unvaccinated individuals or groups are still at risk.

Pockets of people who are unvaccinated due to shared beliefs either religious or otherwise can mean the entire community is at higher risk for an outbreak.

The NYDOH confirmed that the identified polio type is a revertant polio Sabin type 2 virus, indicating it was derived from someone who received the oral polio vaccine, containing live but weakened polio virus. This is no longer given in the U.S. and is used in other countries where medical care might be scarce. Since it is an oral vaccine it can be given by volunteers, instead of a physician.

In rare cases the vaccine can lead to a case of polio, but in general children are far less likely to be sickend by the vaccine than the virus.

“Obviously, they will continue to monitor this based on epidemiological surveillance,” said Strange.

Rockland County, NY, health officials have identified the first U.S. case of polio infection since 2013.

Experts say that the disease is spread orally through saliva or fecal matter and unvaccinated individuals and those unvaccinated under five years old are at the greatest risk.