Rare case of polio raises alarm and urgent investigation in New York

The scene in Rockland County on Friday morning could very well be from a time capsule: residents roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated against polio, a highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease that has suddenly appeared in suburban New York.

The sudden interest in such vaccinations came a day after county officials announced that an unvaccinated local adult had tested positive for the disease. The case caused alarm among local authorities and residents, some of whom could not remember if they received the vaccine, which has been widely available since the 1950s.

Among them was Todd Messler, 64. He was one of 18 people who were vaccinated at a makeshift clinic set up by the county health department in Pomona, New York, about 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan.

“It hurts like hell, but I feel better,” he said. “It’s definitely the right way.”

On Friday, state and county health officials investigated the case, interviewing the patient’s next of kin and calling for immunizations for anyone who didn’t receive it.

Brion Backenson, director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at the state Department of Health, said there is no indication of additional cases yet, though he noted the state is trying to get as many samples as possible for testing and is testing wastewater. for signs of a virus.

Officials also tried to spread the word about the seriousness of the infection, as “people are not familiar with polio,” said Mr. K. – Backenson said, noting that he did not quite understand it himself.

“The last real case of polio I saw in a person was probably photos of Roosevelt,” he said, referring to Great Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “I think a lot of people don’t necessarily understand the seriousness of what polio really is.”

It is still not clear exactly when or where the patient contracted the disease, although health officials believe the person was infected by someone who received an oral polio vaccine containing a weakened live virus.

No such vaccines have been introduced in the United States since 2000, county officials said, suggesting the virus may have “originated outside the U.S. where OPV is administered.” The oral vaccine is safe, but unvaccinated people can become infected if the vaccine-derived virus circulates in the community.

County officials said the strain in question could be spread by those “who come into contact with stool or respiratory secretions, such as from a sneeze or from an infected person.”

The man became symptomatic about a month ago, according to the Rockland County Health Commissioner, who said Thursday the patient was suffering from “weakness and paralysis.”

mr. Only a small percentage of cases will develop into severe paralysis, Bakenson noted, but many of those infected with the polio virus will remain asymptomatic, which could make it difficult to determine the extent of the disease’s spread.

“This is probably the biggest problem: you can have a lot of people who may never have severe paralytic polio but potentially spread it to others,” he said. “Here’s the reason for the urgency.”

On Friday, Rockland County officials said “the person did not travel outside the country during the transmission period,” adding that “up to 95 percent of infected people are asymptomatic, making transmission difficult to trace.”

mr. Backenson said Rockland’s case was discovered after state officials sounded the alarm about another neurological condition — acute flaccid myelitis – which can cause polio symptoms in children and can lead to paralysis. In June, the department sent out a sick note to doctors asking them to monitor cases. The patient’s doctor then sent the sample to state authorities, who, instead of finding AFM, found polio.

County officials were alerted to the positive polio test by state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday evening. The county has released little personal information about the patient, although several local officials, speaking on condition of anonymity for the patient’s privacy, said the patient is a man in his 20s, a member of the county’s large Orthodox Jewish community.

This community was also a link measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019, With hundreds of cases around as well as in Brooklyn, where there are also many Orthodox residents. According to the state, the polio vaccination rate for young children in Rockland County is significantly lower than in other counties outside of New York. (Misinformation about vaccines spreading in the Orthodox communityalthough most Orthodox rabbis encourage their parishioners to be vaccinated.)

A measles outbreak led to a new law passed in June 2019which ended religious exemptions for immunization amid a heated debate in Albany, a dispute that foreshadowed even wider fighting across the country over Covid vaccinations after the pandemic began in 2020.

In Monsey, Yechiel Teichman, 27, an Orthodox father of two young daughters, said he was alarmed by the news of a polio resurgence, even though he and his daughters had been vaccinated.

“It reminded me of older family members who are still suffering from childhood polio,” he said. – Teichman said, walking his girls 2 and 4 years old home after pizza. “I advise everyone to get vaccinated.”

Like other residents, Mr. Teichman also admitted to feeling tired and lacking patience when talking about illnesses, including the coronavirus and recent cases of monkeypox. However, according to him, “polio worries me much more than Covid – polio can cause much more harm.”

Leila Deutsch, 21, said that although she grew up ultra-Orthodox, her parents were scared enough of polio to get her vaccinated. However, many of her friends were not vaccinated, causing her to worry and worry.

“It’s a little weird,” she said. “Things can come up. We don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Similarly, local elected officials have said that the public and government response to polio must be as aggressive as possible.

“It can’t wait,” said Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, a Democrat from Rockland, who said he was shocked to hear of the polio case. “They should attack this on the white boards in the war room.”

mr. Zebrowski, who has three children, seemed frustrated that his neighborhood was once again facing a disease like measles that had seemingly been defeated by modern medicine, only to flare up again in an unvaccinated person.

“Will you be in danger if you take your kids to the mall?” he said. “Honestly, we haven’t had to worry about it for decades.”

Aron B. Wieder, Rockland County Assemblyman, a Hasidic Jew, said he was encouraged by the response from his community and urged unvaccinated people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. “It could save a life,” he said.

Polio, once one of the world’s most feared diseases, has been largely tamed. using vaccines developed in the 1950s.. last known case of polio in the United States in 2013, believed to have been imported from abroad. The last case to occur in the US was in 1979, according to the CDC.

For Mr. Messler, the Friday morning vaccination helped calm him down, although he says the constant threat of various diseases made him a little tired.

“It’s a burden, isn’t it?” he said. “I personally am not alarmed in any way. But these things will keep coming back and coming back and coming back.”

Hurubie Meko provided the report.