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US doctors say many polio cases are undiagnosed

Lisa Bossons

12th August 2022

Warnings have been issued that developed countries need to boost Polio vaccination rates.

In this article on the BBC - US doctor issues warning of many undiagnosed polio cases - it is reported that US doctors are worried that cases of Polio are out there, but hidden and undiagnosed. This follows an unvaccinated man being diagnosed with Polio in New York, earlier in 2022.

In the UK in July 2022 traces of polio virus were found in a London sewage works and New York and Jerusalem have reported similar findings. Scroll to the end of the blog to see a great video from Imperial College London discussing the case of polio virus samples being found in London sewers.

What is polio?

Key facts from the World Health Organisation

  • Polio (poliomyelitis) mainly affects children under 5 years of age.
  • One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralysed, 5–10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.
  • Cases due to wild poliovirus have decreased by over 99% since 1988, from an estimated 350 000 cases then, to 6 reported cases in 2021.
  • As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds could result in a global resurgence of the disease.
  • In most countries, the global effort has expanded capacities to tackle other infectious diseases by building effective surveillance and immunization systems

If like me, you are of a certain age, you will remember being given a sugar lump by the school nurse at primary school. Many vaccinations are given by injection, but the Poliomyelitis vaccine was most usually administered in a cost effective, relatively pleasant way. If we set aside the idea of the good old bad old days, (where sugar was routinely given out by medical staff in the form of sweets, if you’d been good) we must admire the genius of this public health strategy. Uptake was high and polio was wiped out in many developed countries because of mass vaccination. Infantile Paralysis, as it was once known, left people with varying degrees of impaired muscle function. I remember playing with a boy with callipers on his leg (like Forest Gump) and no doubt you have seen the cabinet respirators (iron lungs) in films and museums, which formed part of the care some people with Polio had to face.

In response to current concerns the UK Health Security Agency have stated that all children aged 1 to 9 years in Greater London will be offered a polio vaccine. Read more: Urgent polio boosters for London children

The message is clear. We must not be complacent. Without vaccinations we will see the re-emergence of the diseases from those very bad old days.

In this episode of "Science in Context", Dr Sabine van Elsland speaks with with Prof Nicholas Grassly about the UK health security agency finding poliovirus in samples from London sewage, whether this is unusual and more about polio and vaccine-derived polio.

Lisa Bossons

Lisa is qualified in both mental health and adult nursing and has worked in hospitals and in the community. She has been teaching Health & Social Care in FE and Sixth forms for over 20 years.

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