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First Polio Case Detected in the US in About a Decade

The patient wasn't vaccinated, according to officials, and is no longer contagious.

An illustration of the virus that causes polio
Juan Gaertner/Getty Images

A case of polio, the viral disease that disabled more than 35,000 people each year in the 1940s before there was a vaccine, has been detected in an unvaccinated person in Rockland County, New York, federal and local health officials said Thursday. 

The patient is no longer contagious, according to Rockland County Executive Ed Day, and health officials are working to determine if anyone else is infected. 

Lab tests suggest the patient got polio from a person who was vaccinated with an oral polio vaccine, which uses a weakened but live virus. This type of vaccine is no longer given in the US, where only the inactivated polio vaccine, or IPV, has been given since 2000, suggesting the strain came from another country. 

Most people get the polio vaccine during childhood (typically spaced between two months through six years), in a highly effective four-shot series vaccine that uses an inactivated or dead virus. Most adults don't need another polio vaccine because they got protection as children, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, except for those who are traveling to a country where there's a greater threat of polio, or if you're around polio as a lab worker or health care provider. 

There's no cure for polio, but it can be prevented with vaccines. The current risk to people who've been fully vaccinated against it is lower, county health officials said in a news release. New Yorkers who haven't been vaccinated yet, or never completed the series, are encouraged to get the shot. 

"Based on what we know about this case, and polio in general, the Department of Health strongly recommends that unvaccinated individuals get vaccinated or boosted with the FDA-approved IPV polio vaccine as soon as possible," State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in the release.

"The polio vaccine is safe and effective, protecting against this potentially debilitating disease, and it has been part of the backbone of required, routine childhood immunizations recommended by health officials and public health agencies nationwide," Bassett said.

Polio was eliminated from the US in 1979, according to the CDC, which means there's been no transmission of it. The last known case of polio in the US was reported in 2013. The agency said it's consulting with the New York State Department of Health to investigate how and where the individual was infected. 

There was a measles outbreak in 2019 in Rockland County linked to lower-than-average vaccination rates. Health officials across the board have expressed concern that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted routine childhood vaccinations, which include the polio vaccine. The World Health Organization this month released a statement sounding the alarm over the largest decline in childhood vaccinations in three decades

"With COVID having disrupted immunization (even in the US) and travel now having resumed and much more type 2 poliovirus transmission happening ... it's been only a matter of time before we'd have some detection of polioviruses in sewage, as happened recently in the UK, or more tragically, a case," Kimberly Thompson, president of the nonprofit Kid Risk, told Stat. 

"There's just a lot more polio going around than there should be," she told the publication.  

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.