by Navaneeth Dontuboyina (’24) | October 7, 2022
The poliovirus was once a prominent risk to children in highly populated, urban areas with poor sanitation. It was usually associated with flu-like symptoms such as high fevers, sore throats, and tight muscles, but for some people, it caused life-threatening paralysis.
Fortunately, in 1953, physician John Salk developed a vaccine for polio that was administered to 1.6 million children in Finland, Canada, and the United States within the following year. By 1961, only 161 cases remained, a massive improvement from previous conditions. Since then, the polio vaccine has been administered globally, and new polio treatments such as the oral polio vaccine have been developed.
In the present-day U.S., polio has essentially been eradicated thanks to these medical breakthroughs, with around 92% of one-year-olds vaccinated and no cases of polio reported since 1979. However, in 2022, the lack of proper sanitation in New York City is challenging polio’s complete eradication in the U.S.
New York’s health officials were on high alert after discovering the first paralytic case of polio in over a decade in Rockland County. In response, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) began analyzing wastewater samples from New York’s drainage system. Two months later, on the morning of September 9, New York’s governor Kathy Huchol declared a state of emergency as the NYSDOH concluded that the poliovirus was spreading rapidly in Nassau County, Long Island. This widespread dissemination of poliovirus was especially disastrous for the state as a whole because Long Island is very close to the densely populated New York City, which has particularly poor sanitation.
But how does declaring a state of emergency allow Governor Kathy Huchol and the state’s Department of Health to combat the potential surge of poliovirus cases? According to Nsikan Akpan, the Health and Science Editor of the New York Public Radio, the announcement means that New York can mobilize the entire medical industry to combat the poliovirus.
“So now EMS workers, midwives and pharmacists can give out the shots,” stated Akpan in an NPR interview. “Doctors and nurses can also now put in orders to stock up on the vaccine.” Additionally, the declaration gives Governor Huchol and her administration the power to require all polio immunization records to be sent directly to the Department of Health, allowing easier tracking of the virus’s spread.
Not only is polio’s proximity to urban areas like NYC alarming, but the fact that schools are reopening this fall despite the higher infection rate in children than adults is also cause for concern. As a result, Health Commissioner Mary T. Basset “urges New Yorkers to not accept any risk at all” and to avoid the possibility of muscular paralysis by immediately vaccinating kids and loved ones.
These measures are quite important in patient-zero counties like Rockwell and Sullivan County, which have vaccination rates lower than the statewide level of 79%. If vaccinations are not promoted and monitored, New York may experience an increase of paralytic cases as unimmunized people with flu-like symptoms unknowingly spread polio to those who may then suffer severe side effects.
For people in the Bay Area, these recent events may seem like a distant problem that New York will eventually resolve. However, the potential resurgence of polio is a warning for everyone to remain vigilant about health, safety, and sanitation standards in order to contain unwanted viruses.