County health group urges resources for ‘frightening’ polio threat | Local news

ALBANY — The discovery of poliovirus in sewage samples in two counties upstate New York has prompted calls for new resources for county health departments to prepare for the emerging threat.

These agencies have been overwhelmed with work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic 2 1/2 years ago. Most recently, they reversed themselves as cases of monkeypox multiplied in recent weeks, prompting the state to declare a state of emergency.

Adding to those concerns, said Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the New York State Association of County Health Officers, “the presence of polio is frightening.”

“Currently, our public health system does not have the necessary resources to respond to the threat of polio,” Ravenhall said Friday. “We need to pour more resources into the public health system.”

Public health officials are urging New Yorkers to make sure their polio vaccinations are up to date and to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible if they are not already immunized.

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 elderly man in Rockland County tested positive for polio last month in Rockland County. Authorities said the infection was transmitted by a man who received an oral polio vaccine. The infected is no longer infected. The origin of the virus appears to be 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 more recent findings of poliovirus in several sewage samples made polio a serious problem for health officials at both the state and county levels of government.

“It is disheartening to see the resurgence of polio, a disease that was largely eradicated long ago,” said Dr. Irina Gelman, Orange County Health Commissioner. “It is concerning that polio is circulating in our community given the low vaccination rates for this debilitating disease in some areas of our county.”

Health officials say the polio virus spreads easily from person to person. It can spread even when an infected person has no symptoms. In fact, about 95% of those who have been infected develop no symptoms,

Ravenhall said the discovery of polio in New York underscores the need for a “fundamental rethink” of how to deal with the disease and “supporting proven strategies in measures that prevent disease from occurring.”

She noted that about 97 percent of health care spending goes toward treating people who have already gotten sick, suggesting a more concerted effort to focus on prevention.

While treating the disease is “critically important,” Ravenhall said, “this balance must change if we are to stay ahead of these threats.”

At the state Department of Health, officials are actively monitoring wastewater in partnership with local and national governments, organizing vaccination clinics and “communicating openly with New Yorkers every step of the way and pushing for immunization,” said Samantha Fuld, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“The New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center identified a case of polio in a Rockland County resident and has since launched an emergency, robust response to aggressively assess the spread of the virus and protect New Yorkers — just as the Department has done for any emerging outbreak,” said Fuld.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a global decline in the number of children receiving routine immunizations for various deadly diseases, according to a report released last month by UNICEF, a United Nations agency, and the World Health Organization. Several factors have been cited for the decline, including the focus on the pandemic, lockdowns and misinformation campaigns promoting vaccine distrust. The decline is most pronounced in some of the world’s poorest nations.

In New York, Dr. Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, said this week: “Combined with recent findings about the sewage, the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger potential spread.”

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