CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WGHP) — Reports of polio in the wastewater in New York City made national headlines, but Novant Health says we have little to worry about in North Carolina.
The Associated Press reports that one person in New York, specifically Rockland County, suffered paralysis weeks ago. In June, wastewater samples were taken in Rockland County and Orange County Wastewater samples collected in June in both Rockland and adjacent Orange County were found to contain the virus. Then, on Aug. 15, health officials said the virus had been found in New York City’s wastewater.
COVID-19 and monkeypox continue to make the rounds, so news about another contagious illness may put you on edge, but Novant Health Pediatrician Sameena Hassan says it’s unlikely that we will see any kind of significant polio outbreak in North Carolina.
“I think in general this isn’t something that parents need to be panicking about,” said Novant Health Pediatrician Sameena Hassan. “Polio is very rare in our country, and I don’t expect that it’s going to be a big problem in the coming months.”
The New York case is the first seen in the United States since 2013, according to Hassan. And that’s because the vaccine has been available in the United States since the 50s.
Usually, children receive their first dose of the polio vaccine when they’re 2 months old, their second at 4 months and then their third at 6 months. Children will typically get a booster shot between the ages of 4 and 6 “to confer potentially lifelong immunity,” Hassan said.
Spread usually happens from one unvaccinated person to another unvaccinated person.
“That’s really the only way that this illness can spread in the community, and this is exactly what we saw in New York,” Hassan said. “The person was unvaccinated, and there is the potential for spread really only in a largely unvaccinated community and that, thankfully in Charlotte, is not the case for our community.”
Wasn’t polio eradicated?
Globally, we’re close to eradicating the polio virus completely. Vaccines have helped to significantly reduce the spread of the virus, but there are still parts of the world that do not have the injectable vaccine and that can make an important difference.
“Initially in the 50s, it was an oral polio vaccine, so some of us may remember as children taking a little dropper of medicine by mouth as a young child,” Hassan said. “That was one of the few medicines that was given orally as a vaccine.”
According to Hassan, the oral vaccine contains “a bit” of attenuated live virus, “so there was a very, very low risk, 1 in 2.4 million, that that oral polio vaccine that was given by mouth, could spread and cause polio.”
That’s why, since 2000, most doctors have switched to using the inactive injectable polio vaccine. The shot is typically administered in the arm or leg and doesn’t have the risk of spread that the oral vaccine has.
“Globally there are some countries that still use the oral polio vaccine and that really is the only reason that we still have polio in the world, and so there has been global campaign to transition the vaccine from the oral form to the inactiviated injectable,” Hassan said. “It’s just that in some regions of the world it is much easier to do a vaccine by mouth than by shot.”
Hassan says the side effects of the polio vaccine are generally mild.
“It is possible to have some soreness in that area,” she said. “It is rare to have any other major complications, and as I said before this is a vaccine that we have been giving for decades. It is very safe and is not known to cause any serious side effects. Like any vaccine, there may be the rare person who is allergic, but that does not happen frequently at all.”
How does polio spread and what would happen if I got it?
The polio virus spreads via what Hassan referred to as the oral-fecal route.
“Meaning poor hand hygiene after changing a diaper or going to the bathroom would contribute to the spread, and this is how it used to spread, usually among young children,” she said.
Most people who catch the polio virus are asymptomatic, but they may experience mild nausea or fever.
The symptom people may be most familiar with is paralysis. Famously, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt was paralyzed after contracting polio. That said, paralysis is rare.
“We used to see a lot of it because polio was so prevalent, so when a disease is prevalent and running rampant in the community, we see those rare serious illnesses, but enjoying the minimal risk of polio that we’ve had in this country, it’s not something that we see,” Hassan said.
If polio were to begin spreading in New York or any other community — “which is a big ‘if’ at this point” — Hassan says health officials would likely begin promoting a vaccine booster.
“We’re far from that at this point,” Hassan said. “I think that if anyone is concerned that they may not have had a polio vaccine as a child, they certainly can get a booster. They should check with their physician and talk about what makes sense for them.”
The bottom line? So long as you’ve been checking with your physician to make sure you’re up to date on vaccines, you should be fully protected.