EDITORIAL: We can’t let polio get a grip again

This 2014 illustration made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicts a polio virus particle. (Sarah Poser, Meredith Boyter Newlove/CDC via AP)
This 2014 illustration made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicts a polio virus particle. (Sarah Poser, Meredith Boyter Newlove/CDC via AP)

The trials and tribulations of our collective experience with the COVID vaccines have made many people suspicious of all vaccinations, regardless of their record of safety and long history of preventing the spread of dangerous diseases.

Most of us are too young to have experienced the horrors of such diseases as smallpox, diptheria, yellow fever, measles, polio and rubella — or even the threat of them — because the vaccines we received as children were so effective in sparing us from their devastation.

For most of us, our only firsthand experience with mass vaccination has been COVID. And even more than a million deaths nationwide haven’t convinced everyone that vaccines are effective or necessary.

The fact that even fully vaccinated and boosted people still get COVID, often mild or moderate cases, adds to the skepticism about vaccines in general.

But the vaccine hesitancy promulgated by the COVID experience shouldn’t translate to all diseases.

Yet it has, and that’s a dangerous road for us to be on.

Now, despite the fact that polio was declared eliminated in the United States in 1979 due to mass vaccinations, we’re seeing the re-emergence of polio cases in New York and the growing detection of the virus in sewage samples in several counties in downstate New York.

We can’t treat this threat lightly, nor can we overemphasize the importance of getting vaccinated against the virus that causes the disease.

The poliovirus destroys nerve cells in the spinal cord and can potentially lead to permanent paralysis of the legs and arms. It also can be fatal if the paralysis spreads to the muscles used to breathe or swallow.

About one in every 100 people infected develop a severe case of the disease that can include permanent paralysis. Polio is fatal in 2% to 10% of people suffering from paralysis, compared to a global fatality rate of 3.4% for covid and 1% from the flu.

The polio virus is easily spread through contaminated water or food, often transmitted by mouth after contact with contaminated fecal matter from an infected individual.

It’s also easily prevented by the polio vaccine. Yet polio vaccination rates in the state are alarmingly low.

The statewide average for polio immunization is about 79%. But in some New York counties, particularly in those surrounding New York City, it’s even lower. The rate is 60% in Rockland County, 58% in Orange County, 62% in Sullivan County and 79% in Nassau County, the state Health Department reports.

The vaccination rate against polio among 2-year-old children in New York is 78.96%, but significantly lower in some counties and ZIP codes.

On Friday, concerned about the low levels of vaccination and in light of evidence that the virus is becoming more prevalent, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency effective through Oct. 9.

Our skepticism aside, this is warning we should heed.

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The emergency declaration will expand the size of the network of those authorized to administer the polio vaccine to include emergency medical technicians and paramedics, midwives, pharmacists and nurses directed by doctors.

It also authorizes state agencies to assist local governments to take appropriate action to respond to cases.

We’re not medical professionals here, but we recognize a potential crisis when it’s happening. If you’re concerned about the polio vaccine, you should talk to a medical provider about it. Just don’t ignore the issue.

According to the state Health Department, all children should receive four doses of the polio vaccine. The first dose is administered between 6 weeks and 2 months of age, the second dose is given at 4 months, the third at 6 months to 18 months, and the fourth dose at 4 to 6 years old.

Adults who have only received one or two doses should get the remaining one or two, regardless of how long ago the first doses were given.

If you’re unaware of your vaccination status, you should check with your physician’s office.

Health care workers should get a booster if they work in areas where poliovirus has been detected and they might handle specimens or treat patients who may have polio, according to a CNBC report. People who might be exposed to wastewater due to their jobs should also consider getting a booster, health officials said.

The most effective polio vaccine is administered by a shot and is the only one available in the U.S. The oral vaccine is not as effective and in fact can allow new cases to develop.

We can’t let our negative experiences with the COVID vaccine deter us from being vaccinated against polio — a disease that has horrific outcomes and that is preventable by simply getting a shot.

Follow the government warnings on this one.

The threat is real. And prevention measures are essential to our collective health and safety.

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