Polio found in New York City wastewater, indicating a silent spread

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There are no confirmed cases of polio in New York City, but health officials said wastewater surveillance found six positive samples. The local detection comes after a confirmed case in Rockland County and positive wastewater samples in Rockland and Orange counties.

Health officials have been testing wastewater to track the spread of Covid-19, and recently began checking samples from June and July for polio, according to Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at CUNY’s Institute for Implementation Science in Population Health.

It can be difficult to assess the level of community spread based on the six positive samples the city collected. Nash said it’s unclear how many facilities those samples came from, or what concentration of the poliovirus was detected in each.

“As to how many people that could represent, that’s another unknown,” he said. “We have never really calibrated the signal in wastewater to the number of cases that might be in the community. It’s a really new approach to surveillance.”

Officials have said the samples in New York have not been genetically linked to the case in Rockland County.
“New Yorkers should know that the latest environmental findings do not indicate that the individual identified in Rockland County was the source of the transmission, and case investigation into the origin of the virus is ongoing,” officials said.

“New Yorkers should know that the latest environmental findings do not indicate that the individual identified in Rockland County was the source of the transmission, and case investigation into the origin of the virus is ongoing,” officials said.

The disease was largely eradicated in the U.S. due to successful vaccine campaigns, but it has found purchase in areas with flagging vaccination rates.

In New York City, just over 86 percent of children aged 6 months to 5 years old have received three doses of the polio vaccine, leaving another 14 percent vulnerable, according to health officials. Those rates varied significantly by borough and neighborhood. In Manhattan, vaccination rates average 91 percent — on Staten Island they’re about 82 percent.

The Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn had the city’s lowest rate at just over 56 percent. Meanwhile, nearby Greenpoint saw rates of over 99 percent.

Similar variance occurred across counties, though state officials calculated the rate differently, noting the percentage of 2-year-old children who had received three doses of the vaccine. In Rockland, that rate was roughly 60 percent, while in Orange County it fell to just below 59 percent — both far below the statewide average of about 79 percent and among the lowest in the state.

Officials urged parents to vaccinate their children, and anyone who is not fully vaccinated to seek out protection against the virus.

“The number one thing that people can do to protect themselves is ensure that they, their children, their loved ones are vaccinated,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday. “As a parent, this is a responsibility we’re putting on your shoulders right now. We’re asking you to work with us. Make sure your children are protected.”

Mayor Eric Adams told PIX11 that New Yorkers should not take the illness lightly.

“We thought that this was behind us many years ago, and polio is a serious illness that we have to take seriously,” he said. “Challenging problem, easy solution: Vaccination.”

Young children should get four doses of the vaccine, while adults and others beginning the process after the age of four should get a total of three doses, health officials said. Adults who received one or two doses in the past can receive their remaining doses now, regardless of how long it has been since the initial doses were administered.

“The risk to New Yorkers is real but the defense is so simple — get vaccinated against polio,” New York City Health Commissioner Ashwin Vasan said in a statement. “With polio circulating in our communities there is simply nothing more essential than vaccinating our children to protect them from this virus, and if you’re an unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated adult, please choose now to get the vaccine.”

“Polio is entirely preventable and its reappearance should be a call to action for all of us,” Vasan said.

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