No, polio is not a threat to the vast majority of Americans. This is because the vast majority received a highly effective polio vaccine. And it’s also why public officials should stop turning a concern centered on a few under-vaxxed communities into a problem for everyone.
But Governor Kathy Hochul did just that when she declared a “polio state of emergency” in New York state. The announcement made national and international news, portraying New York as the center of a new disease outbreak, just as the state was still digging its way out of the pandemic downturn.
Here’s the real story: Sewage swabs revealed traces of polio virus in vaccine-resistant pockets of the state, primarily the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County. Low vaccination rates in Amish farmland in the southern part of the state have also been noted.
A young, unvaccinated Hasidic Jewish man has been stricken with the dreaded paralysis associated with the disease. It is the first – and so far only – case of polio in the country in a decade.
This personal tragedy does not constitute a state or national emergency. Polio vaccines are required for admission to public schools and most private schools almost anywhere in the United States. This is why the disease had almost disappeared.
Polio spread experts reject the idea that a handful of cases in wealthy, highly vaccinated countries with good sanitation pose a threat to the general public. Nicholas Grassly, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, has tried to allay polio fears in places like New York.
Grassly has tracked evidence of the virus in Orthodox communities in London, Greater Jerusalem and Rockland County. “There is a risk that we end up reporting one or two cases in London,” he told Science magazine, obviously trying to avoid panicked conclusions if that happened.
Virologists say they are much more concerned about the spread of polio in parts of Africa where vaccination rates are low and sanitation is very poor.
As for the United States, evidence of polio virus in sewage samples does not herald COVID, part II. At first, there was no vaccine for COVID, and the virus killed thousands of people. All you could do to protect yourself was to wear masks, sanitize your hands and avoid others. The COVID blow changed everything. He avoided serious illnesses. It freed us.
Right-wing misinformation and general ignorance have fostered anti-vaccine sentiment. The original anti-vaxxers, however, were largely affluent white progressives from Marin County, California, and similar oases of “natural” living. (That group has apparently come to their senses, and now Marin has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.)
Those of us who have been minding business during the pandemic quickly felt armored against stories of dying COVID patients wishing they had been vaccinated. With gunshots seemingly aimed at them on every corner, sympathy did not flow easily.
These COVID patients have overwhelmed US emergency services at great cost to the public. They have hogged medical resources, forcing people with cancer and heart disease to postpone treatment.
As for the vaccine against poliomyelitis, the four doses necessary for schooling provide 99% protection against the disease. And 99% of school children in New York are vaccinated against polio.
And then, where is the health emergency of poliomyelitis? To say it exists ignores the broad public compliance with vaccination mandates and the easy availability of vaccines. It creates unwarranted fears. And by making it everyone’s problem, it downplays the importance of responsible behavior, which is getting vaccinated. Poliomyelitis is now largely a self-inflicted disease.
The best reason not to declare an emergency, however, is that there isn’t one.
– Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be contacted at [email protected] To learn more about Froma Harrop and read articles from other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.