ALBANY — The detection of the polio virus in sewage samples in two upstate New York counties has sparked calls for new resources for county health departments to prepare for the emerging threat.
These agencies have been overwhelmed with work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic 2 1/2 years ago. More recently, they have been turned around as cases of monkeypox have multiplied in recent weeks, prompting the state to declare a state of emergency.
Besides those concerns, said Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the New York State Health Officials Association, “the presence of polio is scary.”
“Right now, our public health system does not have the necessary resources to respond to a polio threat,” Ravenhall said Friday. “We need to inject more resources into the public health system.”
Public health officials are urging New Yorkers to make sure their polio vaccination is up to date and to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible if they haven’t already been vaccinated.
Concerns have been sparked by test results showing the presence of the polio virus in sewage 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 infection was spread by a man who had received the oral polio vaccine. 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 polio virus in several sewage samples make polio a prominent concern of health officials at both the state and county levels.
“It is disappointing to see a resurgence of polio, a disease that was largely eradicated a long time ago,” said Dr. Irina Gelman, Orange County’s health commissioner. “It is concerning that polio is circulating in our community given the low vaccination rates for this debilitating disease in some areas of our county.”
Health officials say the polio virus is easily spread from person to person. It can be transmitted even when an infected person has no symptoms. In fact, about 95% of infected people show no symptoms,
Ravenhall said the detection of the polio virus in New York underscores the need to “radically review” ways of dealing with transmission and “support proven strategies in measures that prevent disease from occurring.”
He noted that about 97% of health care spending goes into treatment for people who are already sick, suggesting a more concerted effort to focus on prevention.
While treating the disease is “critical,” Ravenhall said, “this balance must change if we are to prevent these threats.”
At the state Department of Health, officials are actively conducting wastewater surveillance in cooperation with local and national authorities, organizing vaccination clinics and “openly reaching out to New Yorkers every step of the way to get vaccinated,” said Samantha Fuld, a spokeswoman for the agency.
“The New York Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center identified a case of polio in a Rockland County resident and has since 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 emerging outbreak,” Fuld said.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global decline in the number of children receiving routine vaccines for various deadly diseases, according to a report issued last month by UNICEF, an agency of the United Nations, and the World Health Organization. Several factors were cited for the decline, including a focus on the pandemic, lockdowns and misinformation campaigns that encourage mistrust of vaccines. The decline has been sharpest in some of the world’s poorest nations.
In New York, Dr. Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, said this week: “Coupled with the latest sewage findings, the department is treating the single case of polio as the tip of the iceberg of a much larger potential spread.”