What Your Pediatrician Wants You to Know About Polio Returning

For the first time in nearly a decade, health officials in upstate New York discovered a case of polio in an unvaccinated young man. The case, which was detected in late July, is believed to have originated outside of the United States and was transmitted from someone who received the oral polio vaccine, according to the New York State Health Department. 

Polio, which arrived in the United States in 1894 caused widespread panic and fear primarily due to the speed in which the virus could spread and its symptoms. The viral disease, which enters the body through the mouth, usually comes from hands that are contaminated with saliva or stool from an infected person, which makes it more common in infants and young children, or anyone with poor hygiene conditions. Mild symptoms range from fever, sore throat, neck and back stiffness to more severe and life-altering conditions like paralysis, loss of reflexes, breathing or swallowing problems and even death. 

On average, 16,000 cases of polio occurred each year in the 20th century, but since the introduction of the polio vaccine in 1955, next to zero cases were reported in the 21st century.

The last case of polio in the United States was in 2013 in someone who brought the disease in from abroad. There has not been a case originating in the United States since 1979, according to the CDC

So, should you be concerned for your child?

Pediatricians agree that this case should raise a flag. “The return of polio is of great concern to children from a pediatric public health standpoint,” said Dr. Jessica Madden, a board-certified pediatrician and neonatologist, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and Medical Director of Aeroflow Breastpumps. “Especially since so many U.S. children have not received the polio vaccine and are vulnerable to infection. Polio is especially dangerous to children because it directly attacks the nervous system.”

And once the nervous system is attacked the infection cannot be stopped. There are currently no treatments for polio, so prevention is vital and pediatricians agree vaccination is the best route. 

People who get polio can be contagious for up to six weeks, so even a very mild case can really disrupt a household, school schedule or parent work arrangements. If your children are unvaccinated, it is not too late to start protecting them, and those around them, by getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Madden. 

Why are there two vaccines, but only one available in the US?

In 1955 the United States licensed the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) which is administered as a shot in the leg or the arm. By 1961, the oral polio vaccine (OPV) was developed to provide a more convenient option to be administered via liquid drops given through the mouth. Both vaccines were recommended for use in the United States until the year 2000. At that point the country was polio-free and the CDC determined OPV was no longer effective enough at preventing polio, and IPV became the only vaccine available. 

“The oral polio vaccine contains a weakened form of the live virus that can spread and cause polio in individuals who aren’t vaccinated or have weakened immune systems,” said Dr. Laura Sigman, pediatrician, attorney and advisor at Alpha Medical.  “This is called vaccine derived polio virus. Because of this, OPV has not been administered in the U.S. since 2000. IPV is an injectable form of the vaccine containing inactivated, or dead, virus particles. It cannot transmit cases of polio,” she said.

Anyone who received their routine childhood immunizations since 2000 in the United States received IPV and is protected from the polio disease. And individuals who received the OPV prior to 2000 in the United States are also protected. 

What is the best way to protect your child?

In short, pediatricians agree that getting vaccinated is the safest and quickest way to protect your child from contracting polio. 

“One out of every 25 children who get infected with polio develop meningitis and one in every 200 are left with paralysis,” said Dr. Madden. “The best and only way to protect your children from polio is to get them vaccinated. There is an accelerated polio vaccine schedule that can be followed if we find ourselves in the midst of a true outbreak of polio.”

And for parents who might be concerned or unsure if their child received a full polio vaccination schedule, consulting with your doctor and scheduling additional doses is possible: “The best way to protect against getting any form of polio is to make sure you and your children receive all doses of IPV,” said Dr. Sigman. “These can be given as ‘catch up’ vaccines if they weren’t given according to the recommended schedule in early childhood.”

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