Rare case of polio triggers alarm and urgent investigation in New York

The scene in Rockland County on Friday morning may well be from a time capsule: Residents roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated against polio, the highly infectious and sometimes deadly disease that has made an unexpected appearance in suburban New York City. .

The sudden interest in such inoculations came a day after county authorities announced that a local, unvaccinated adult had tested positive for the disease. The case alarmed local officials and residents, some of whom could not remember whether or not they had received the vaccine, which has been widely available since the 1950s.

Among them was Todd Messler, 64. He was one of 18 people who received an injection at a pop-up clinic set up by the Pomona County Health Department in New York state, about 35 miles northwest of central Manhattan.

“It hurt a lot, but I feel better,” he said. “It’s definitely the way to go.”

On Friday, state and county health officials were investigating the case, interviewing the patient’s immediate family members and urging vaccinations for anyone in the general public who had not received one.

Bryon Backenson, director of the state Health Department’s Office of Communicable Disease Control, said there were no indications of additional cases yet, though he noted the state was trying to acquire as many samples as possible to test and verify the wastewater. for signs of the virus.

Officials were also trying to get the word out about the severity of the infection, because “people don’t know about polio,” Mr Backenson said, noting that he himself wasn’t exactly aware of it.

“The last real polio case I saw in a person was probably FDR footage,” he said, referring to the Depression-era president. “I think for a lot of people they don’t necessarily understand the seriousness of what polio really is.”

It is still unclear exactly when or where the patient contracted the disease, although health officials believe the person was infected by someone who received the oral polio vaccine, which contains weakened live virus.

Such vaccines have not been administered in the United States since 2000, suggesting the virus may “originate from a location outside of the United States where OPV is administered,” according to county officials. The oral vaccine is safe, but unvaccinated people can become infected if the vaccine-derived virus circulates in a community.

County officials said the strain in question can be spread by those “who come into contact with stool or respiratory secretions, such as a sneeze, from an infected person.”

The person was showing symptoms about a month ago, according to the Rockland County Health Commissioner, who said Thursday that the patient suffered from “weakness and paralysis.”

Mr Backenson noted that only a tiny percentage of cases progress to severe paralysis, but many of those infected with the polio virus are asymptomatic, which could make it difficult to detect how far the disease has spread.

“That’s probably the biggest concern: you can have a lot of people who may never have had severe paralytic polio but who could potentially pass it on to others,” he said. “That’s the reason for the urgency.”

On Friday, Rockland County officials said “the person has not traveled outside the country during what would have been the transmission window,” adding that “up to 95% of those infected have no symptom, making it difficult to find transmission”.

Mr Backenson said Rockland’s case was discovered after state officials raised the alarm about another neurological condition – acute flaccid myelitis – which can cause polio-like symptoms in children and lead to a paralysis. In June, the department distributed a notice about the disease to clinicians, asking them to be on the lookout for cases. The patient’s doctor then sent a sample to state authorities who, rather than finding the AFM, discovered polio.

County officials were alerted to the positive identification of polio by state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Monday evening. The county releases little personal information about the patient, although several local officials, speaking on condition of anonymity for confidentiality reasons, said he was a man in his 20s and a member of the large Jewish community. County Orthodox.

This community was also the source of a measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019, with hundreds of cases in the county and in Brooklyn, which is also home to many Orthodox residents. According to state data, the polio vaccination rate among young children in Rockland County is significantly lower than in other counties outside of New York. (Misinformation about vaccines has circulated in the Orthodox community, although most Orthodox rabbis encourage vaccination among their followers.)

The measles outbreak led to a new law, passed in June 2019, that ended religious exemptions for vaccinations amid heated debate in Albany, a dispute that presaged even larger scale battles. national on Covid vaccinations after the start of the pandemic in 2020.

In Monsey, Yechiel Teichman, 27, an Orthodox father of two young girls, said he was alarmed by the news of the resurgence of polio, even though he and his daughters were vaccinated.

“It reminded me of elderly family members who still suffered from the polio they had as children,” Mr Teichman said, as he walked his daughters, aged 2 and 4, back to the home after buying a pizza. “I advise everyone to get vaccinated.”

Like other residents, Teichman also confessed to feelings of exhaustion and a lack of patience with discussions of illnesses, including the coronavirus and recent cases of monkeypox. Still, he said, “I worry much more about polio than Covid. Polio could do much more damage.

Layla Deutsch, 21, said although she grew up ultra-Orthodox, her parents were terrified enough of polio to get her vaccinated. However, many of her friends had not been vaccinated, which left her worried and anxious.

“It’s a little weird,” she said. “Anything can happen, we don’t know what’s next.”

Likewise, local elected officials said the community and government response to polio should be as aggressive as possible.

“This can’t wait,” said MK Kenneth Zebrowski, a Democrat from Rockland, who said he was shocked to learn of the polio case. “They have to attack this on whiteboards in a war room.”

Mr. Zebrowski, who has three children, seemed frustrated that his district was once again struggling with a disease, like measles, which had apparently been vanquished by modern medicine, only to resurface in an unvaccinated person.

“Are you going to take a risk if you take your kids to the mall?” he said. “Honestly, we haven’t had to worry about that in decades.”

Aron B. Wieder, a member of the Rockland County Legislative Assembly and a Hasidic Jew, said he was encouraged by the response from people in his community and encouraged unvaccinated people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. as possible. “It can save lives,” he said.

Once one of the most feared diseases in the world, polio was largely brought under control thanks to vaccines developed in the 1950s. The last known case of polio in the United States was in 2013 and is believed to have been imported from overseas. The last case originated in the United States dates back to 1979, according to the CDC

For Mr Messler, Friday morning’s vaccination helped calm him down, although he said the continued threat of various illnesses had left him feeling a little tired.

“It’s a brake, isn’t it? ” he said. “I am personally not alarmed. But these things will keep coming back and coming back and coming back.

Hurubie Meko contributed reporting.

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