County health group urges resources for ‘terrifying’ polio threat | local news

ALBANY — The detection of poliovirus in sewage samples from two counties north of New York City has sparked calls for new resources for county health officials to prepare for the emerging threat.

These agencies have been awash with work since the COVID-19 pandemic began 2 1/2 years ago. More recently, they’ve changed as cases of monkeypox have multiplied in recent weeks, prompting the state to declare a public emergency.

Adding to these concerns, said Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, “The presence of polio is scary.”

“Right now, our public health system does not have the resources to respond to a polio threat,” Ravenhall said Friday. “We need to channel more resources into the public health system.”

Public health officials are urging New Yorkers to ensure their polio vaccination is up to date and to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible if they have not already been vaccinated.

The concerns were sparked by test results showing the presence of poliovirus in sewage samples collected at different times in Rockland and Orange counties.

An unvaccinated adult male in Rockland County tested positive for polio in Rockland County last month. Officials said the contagion was transmitted by a man who received the oral polio vaccine. The infected man is no longer contagious. The origin of the virus appears to have been somewhere outside the United States. Use of the oral vaccine in the United States ended more than 20 years ago.

The polio case in Rockland County and the recent detection of poliovirus in several sewage samples make polio a major concern for public health officials at both the state and county levels.

“It is discouraging to see a resurgence in polio, a disease that was largely eradicated long ago,” said Dr. Irina Gelman, Orange County Health Commissioner. “It is of concern that polio is prevalent in our community given the low rates of vaccination against this debilitating disease in certain areas of our county.”

Health officials say the poliovirus spreads easily from person to person. It can spread even when an infected person has no symptoms. In fact, an estimated 95% of those infected develop no symptoms,

Ravenhall said the detection of poliovirus in New York underscores the need for a “fundamental rethinking” of ways to deal with the contagion and “supporting proven strategies in action to prevent disease outbreaks.”

She pointed out that around 97% of healthcare spending goes on treating people who have already fallen ill, suggesting a greater focus on prevention.

While treating diseases is “vitally important,” Ravenhall said, “that balance needs to shift if we are to stay ahead of these threats.”

In the state Department of Health, officials in partnership with local and state agencies are actively monitoring wastewater, organizing immunization clinics and “openly communicating with New Yorkers every step of the way and urging immunizations,” said Samantha Fuld, spokeswoman for the agency.

“The Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health identified the case of polio in a Rockland County resident and has since initiated an urgent, robust response to aggressively assess the spread of the virus and protect New Yorkers — just like the department it has done for every emerging outbreak,” Fuld said.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children receiving routine vaccinations against a variety of deadly diseases has declined worldwide, according to a report released last month by UNICEF, a United Nations agency, and the World Health Organization. Multiple factors have been cited for the decline, including a focus on the pandemic, lockdowns and misinformation campaigns fueling distrust of vaccines. The decline was most notable in some of the world’s poorest countries.

In New York, State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett this week: “In conjunction with the latest findings on wastewater, the department is treating the individual case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg with a much larger potential spread.”

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