No, polio is not a threat to the vast majority of Americans. That’s because the vast majority has received a very effective polio vaccine. And that’s also why public officials should stop turning a concern centered on a few under-vaxxed communities into everyone’s problem.
But Gov. Kathy Hochul did just that when she declared a “polio state of emergency” in the state of New York. The announcement made the national and international news, portraying New York as the center of a new disease outbreak, just as the state was still digging out of the pandemic slowdown.
Here’s the real story: Wastewater samplings have revealed some traces of polio virus in vaccine-resistant pockets of the state — mainly the community of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Rockland County. The low vaccination rates in the Amish farmlands on the state’s Southern Tier have also been noted.
An unvaccinated young Hasidic Jewish man was stricken with the dreaded paralysis associated with the disease. This is the first — and so far, only — such polio case in the country in a decade.
That personal tragedy doesn’t constitute a state or national emergency. Polio shots are required for admission to public and most private schools almost everywhere in the U.S. That’s why the disease had almost disappeared.
Experts in the spread of polio dismiss the idea that a handful of cases in rich, highly vaccinated countries with good sanitation are a threat to the larger public. Nicholas Grassly, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, has been trying to tamp down fears of polio in places like New York.
Grassly has followed evidence of the virus in Orthodox communities in London, greater Jerusalem and Rockland County. “There is a risk we will end up reporting one or two cases in London,” he told Science magazine, evidently trying to head off panicky conclusions should that happen.
Virologists say they are far more worried about polio’s spread in parts of Africa where vaccination rates are low and sanitation is very poor.
As for the United States, the evidence of the polio virus in wastewater samplings does not herald COVID, Part II. Early on there was no vaccine against COVID, and the virus went on to kill thousands. All one could do for protection was wear masks, sanitize hands and avoid others. The COVID shot changed everything. It prevented serious disease. It freed us.
Right-wing disinformation and general ignorance promoted anti-vaccine sentiment. The original anti-vaxxers, however, were largely affluent white progressives in Marin County, California, and similar oases of “natural” living. (This group has apparently come to its senses, and now Marin has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.)
Those of us who took care of business during the pandemic soon felt armored against stories of dying COVID patients wishing they had gotten vaccinated. With shots being waved at them seemingly from every street corner, sympathy did not flow easily.
These COVID patients burdened America’s emergency departments at great expense to the public. They hogged medical resources, forcing people with cancer and heart disease to put off treatment.
As for the polio vaccine, the four doses required for school enrollment provide 99% protection against the disease. And 99% of New York’s schoolchildren are vaccinated for polio.
And so where is the polio health emergency? Saying it exists ignores the broad public compliance with vaccine mandates and the easy availability of the shots. It creates unwarranted fears. And by making it everybody’s problem, it downplays the importance of responsible behavior — that is, getting vaccinated. Polio is now largely a self-inflicted disease.
The best reason for not declaring an emergency, however, is that there isn’t one.