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County health group urges resources for ‘frightening’ polio threat

Joe Mahoney, CNHI State Reporter
Posted 8/10/22

The detection of the poliovirus in wastewater samples in two counties north of New York City has ignited calls for new resources for county health departments to prepare for the emerging …

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County health group urges resources for ‘frightening’ polio threat


ALBANY — The detection of the poliovirus in wastewater samples in two counties north of New York City has ignited calls for new resources for county health departments to prepare for the emerging threat.

Those agencies have been swamped with work since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic 2 1/2 years ago. More recently, they have pivoted as cases of monkeypox have multiplied in recent weeks, prompting the state to declare a public emergency.

On top of these concerns, said Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, “the presence of polio is frightening.”

“Right now, our public health system does not have the resources necessary to respond to a polio threat,” Ravenhall said Friday. “We need to infuse more resources into the public health system.”

Public health officials are urging New Yorkers to make sure their vaccination for polio is up to date and to have their children vaccinated as soon as possible if they have not yet been immunized. The concerns have been triggered by test results showing the presence of poliovirus in wastewater samples collected at different times in Rockland and Orange counties.

An unvaccinated adult man in Rockland County tested positive for polio last month in Rockland County. Officials said the contagion was transmitted by a man who had received the oral vaccine for polio. The infected man is no longer contagious. The origin of the virus appears to have been a location outside the United States. Use of the oral vaccine in the United States ended more than 20 years ago.

The Rockland County polio case and the more recent findings of poliovirus in several wastewater samples is making polio a prominent concern of health officials at both the state and county levels of government.

“It is disheartening to see a resurgence of polio, a disease that was largely eradicated long ago,” Dr. Irina Gelman, the Orange County health commissioner, said. “It is concerning that polio is circulating in our community, given the low rates of vaccination for this debilitating disease in certain areas of our county.”

Officials say the polio virus spreads easily from person to person. It can be spread even when an infected person has no symptoms. In fact, an estimated 95% of those who were infected do not develop symptoms, Ravenhall said the detection of the poliovirus in New York underscores the need to “fundamentally rethink” ways to deal with the contagion and to “support proven strategies in measures that prevent the onset of illness.”

She noted some 97% of health care spending is channeled into treatment for people who have already become ill, suggesting a more concerted effort to focus on prevention.

While treating disease is “critically important,” Ravenhall said, “that balance has to change if we want to get ahead of these threats.”

At the state Department of Health, officials are actively conducting wastewater surveillance in partnership with local and national authorities, organizing vaccination clinics and “communicating openly with New Yorkers at every step and urging immunization,” said Samantha Fuld, agency spokeswoman.

“The New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center identified the case of polio among a Rockland County resident, and since, has launched an urgent, robust response to aggressively assess the spread of the virus and protect New Yorkers – just as the Department has done for every emergent outbreak,” Fuld said.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global decline in the number of children getting routine immunizations for a variety of lethal illnesses, according to a report issued last month by UNICEF, a United Nations agency, and the World Health Organization. Several factors were cited for the decline, including the focus on the pandemic, lockdowns and misinformation campaigns encouraging distrust of vaccines. The decline was most pronounced in some of the world’s poorest nations.

In New York, Dr. Mary Bassett, the state health commissioner, said this week: “Coupled with the latest wastewater findings, the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of much greater potential spread.”


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