With Polio Likely Circulating in New York, California Health Experts Urge Vaccination

Concern continues to spread about what health officials say is “probable local circulation” of the virus that causes paralytic polio in New York.

This week, health officials confirmed that the virus was found in sewage in New York City. This comes after the virus was detected in other parts of the state a month ago and after a New Yorker was diagnosed with paralytic polio in July.

California health experts who spoke to NBC Bay Area said that while this news from New York is not cause for panic, it is a reminder of the importance of vaccination.

Polio is highly contagious, and although most of those infected will have no visible symptoms, a small number of cases can lead to paralysis or even death.

Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UCSF, said he remembers waiting in line with his parents to get the polio vaccine in the 1960s. Before widespread vaccine access, he explained, the spread of polio was frightening to many Americans.

“We’re talking about iron lungs, ventilators, permanent defects — people were scared out of their minds about it at the time, and rightly so, so when the vaccines first became available … there was a mad rush to get those,” he explained.

But today, with the spread of polio vaccinations, Rutherford doesn’t think polio infection is something most people need to worry about.

However, Rutherford stresses, “if you’re not vaccinated, you should get the polio vaccine.”

The CDC recommends that children receive four doses of the polio vaccine, with the first at two months of age.

You probably won’t remember if you were vaccinated against polio, but Rutherford has a general rule of thumb:

“If you were born after 1952, you most likely got a polio vaccine and you’re immune, if you were born before, say the early 50s maybe or maybe not,” he said.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, said if you can’t find your vaccination records, your memory of vaccinations as a child can help.

“If people received routine vaccinations in childhood and they remember it, they almost certainly received polio vaccine,” Bloomberg said, noting that polio vaccine has been part of routine vaccinations since the late 1950s.

“If they remember that [as a child] didn’t get any vaccines, or their parents didn’t want them to get vaccinated, then they may not have been vaccinated against polio,” Bloomberg noted. “And with a very low prevalence of polio, they may not have immunity, and may be exposed at risk of infection.”

In California, the polio vaccination is one of the vaccines required to attend public schools, private schools, and childcare facilities.

“It’s one of the best-tolerated vaccines we have, and it’s very effective,” Bloomberg said.

He added that “anyone who was vaccinated in childhood is likely to be immune for the rest of their lives.”

Lauren Lewis of San Mateo thinks she got the polio vaccine as part of all the shots she was supposed to get for school.

“And I had to take my mom’s word for it, but I know I had all my shots, yeah,” Lewis said.

“I take my parents’ word for it that I’ve been vaccinated, but I’ve never really checked,” said Varun Hegde, 19, of Foster City.

Hegde and his friends say they read about polio in history class. They are now considering checking their vaccination records and doing more research on the virus.

Stanford University’s School of Engineering told NBC Bay Area Sunday that its research team is looking into monitoring polio in wastewater, though that hasn’t happened yet.

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