Medical Examiner

Wait, Have I Been Vaccinated Against Polio?

The virus has been found in New York City wastewater—chances are you’re well protected.

A vial of the polio vaccine
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Vincent Racaniello knows he has been inoculated against polio because his mom kept his vaccine card from 1962.

It looks like polio is now currently circulating in New York City, where Racaniello works as a virologist at Columbia University. Local health departments announced Friday that the virus has been found in sewage. State Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett said in a statement that the news is “alarming, but not surprising.”

Polio, which can paralyze the body, hadn’t been spotted in the US for about a decade, until a case popped up on July 21 in Rockland County, New York The patient is 20 years old, and developed paralysis. Since then, New York state health officials have detected samples of the virus in wastewater in two different counties. And now, in New York City.

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But Racinello is not concerned for himself—nor for a good portion of his fellow New Yorkers. “If you’re vaccinated and get infected, you probably won’t get polio,” he explains. But “if you’re unvaccinated and get infected, you could get paralyzed,” he warns. That was the case for the patient in Rockland County—they hadn’t had their polio shots.

The majority of adults in the US are vaccinated against polio, thanks in large part to the fact that most schools have polio vaccine mandates. But the virus can still find places to spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Rockland County has a polio vaccination rate of about 60 percent among two-year-olds (the age by which kids should have had three doses). This is much lower than the statewide average of nearly 80 percent, and the national average of 93 percent. In New York City, 86 percent of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old have gotten a full course of the polio innoculation.

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If you’re not sure whether or you’ve been vaccinated for polio your doctor or local health board may have records (though it might be worth calling your parents, too, in case they have carefully kept them on file). If you’re still not sure, it can’t hurt to get the jab again, says Rancaniello. “There’s no harm in doing so and it will protect you,” he explains. The CDC recommends three shots for adults, and four for children.

According to the New York State Health department, “adults who received polio vaccine as children should receive a one-time lifetime booster if traveling to an area where there is a poliovirus transmission.” Currently, the health department is recommending that “adults who are at increased risk of exposure” who have already been vaccinated “can consult with a health care provider can receive one lifetime booster dose.” The CDC is considering if people in some areas in New York state will need boosters, according to CNN.

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Widespread vaccination––nationwide and globally–– is what can eradicate the disease completely. “Immunization provides individual protection but community protection by breaking chains of transmission and keeping polio away,” says Walter Orenstein, an epidemiologist at Emory University.

The disease was a problem in the mid 20th century, but since then scientists have developed two vaccines against the virus virus. In the 1950s, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine with an inactivated version of the virus. Two doses of this vaccine are 90 percent or more against paralytic polio and three doses are 99 percent to 100 percent effective. This is the only vaccine that has been used in the US since 2000.

And if you have had the shot, you probably don’t need to be worried about the polio news—at least when it comes to your personal health. “Ever since the pandemic [started], every virus that comes in the news people get worried about,” says Racaniello. “They’re hypersensitized to viruses, which is in a way good but you can’t let it ruin your life. You have to move on and for polio, a simple solution is just to make sure you’re vaccinated.”

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