Adults who doubt they have been fully vaccinated against polio should talk to their doctor about getting further vaccinations, experts say.
A confirmed case of polio in New York state has rekindled the sense of urgency to ensure everyone is fully immunized against the potentially deadly virus, said Duke infectious disease expert Dr. Cameron Wolfe.
“We never really worried about it because so many people had been vaccinated effectively that the disease had been gone from the United States for decades,” Wolfe said. “So far.”
This is especially true for children who may have fallen behind in their vaccine series during the pandemic.
The New York case, in which an unvaccinated man developed polio-related paralysis, is the first time since 1979 that there has been a case of polio originating in the United States.
The oral polio vaccine (which some may remember as a piece of sugar in a cube of paper) was replaced in the United States by a series of vaccines in 2000 due to its ability, in rare situations, to reactivate in an infectious form.
CDC researchers found that the New York man was infected with a weakened version of the virus from the oral vaccine, which is still used in some countries overseas.
Subsequent sewage testing in New York found polio had been circulating locally for up to a year, the CDC said, indicating many more asymptomatic infections.
“This single case in New York showed it may be the canary in the coal mine,” Wolfe said.
New York isn’t the only place with a recent resurgence of polio. A handful of polio cases in Europe also raise red flags for global health researchers.
In June, London health officials found evidence that polio was spreading through sewage and recently announced that children between the ages of 1 and 9 would be offered a booster shot. An unvaccinated 3-year-old child in Jerusalem became paralyzed earlier this year from the virus.
A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Health said North Carolinas should speak with their doctors about their vaccination history and travel plans.
Most people with polio do not feel sick or have minor symptoms, such as fever, headache or pain in the limbs. In rare cases, however, poliomyelitis can cause permanent and irreversible paralysis.
Polio Vaccine Update:
According to the CDC, adults who know they’re unvaccinated or don’t have documentation of their vaccinations could be eligible for three doses spread over several months.
Wolfe said it would be highly unlikely that anyone would not be vaccinated without knowing it, unless they grew up outside the United States.
“It’s almost like the basic vaccine for so many years that it would be an unusual situation for someone not to have it,” he said.
Those who have only partially completed the three-dose series can see a doctor to receive their missed injections. Two doses of the vaccine are about 90% effective in preventing paralysis while the full series is more than 99% effective in preventing polio-related paralysis.
Adults who have been fully immunized but are at high risk of exposure (for example, healthcare workers caring for patients with poliomyelitis or people traveling to countries such as Afghanistan, where poliomyelitis is still endemic) may qualify for a one-time booster shot.
EXPLAINER: What to know about the spread of polio in New York
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Do you need a polio booster? Everything you need to know about polio vaccines