Experts urge polio vaccination to ward off any major resurgence

Perhaps as might be fitting in this election season, Ashwin Vasan, M.D., began his article in Stat today with a remembrance of Franklin Roosevelt who, on Nov. 8, 1932, won the presidential election.

Vasan wrote: “Ask most Americans to name a victim of polio and they’ll say President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Polio hits close to home for Vasan, a primary care physician and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. He relates how his aunt died from it and how it permanently paralyzed an uncle’s leg. At one point, wrote Vasan, it appeared as if polio would follow the route of smallpox, which the 33rd World Health Assembly declared to have been officially eradicated on May 8, 1980.

“That [eradication of polio] didn’t happen, in large part due to the effects of global under-vaccination caused by a combination of mistrust, poor implementation, lack of access in conflict zones, insufficient funding, loss of global momentum, and work suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vasan writes.

Kevin Kavanagh, M.D., president and founder of the patient advocacy organization Health Watch USA, agrees with Vasan, especially about the need for the healthcare system and society in general to champion polio vaccination. Vasan stresses the importance of a good public health system in the face of a polio outbreak. Kavanagh agrees with that as well, but with a caveat.

“The thing that is very hard about public health is when they’re successful, you don’t have disease,” Kavanagh told Fierce Healthcare. “And so many people believe, ‘Well, it wasn’t needed. We don’t need to get the vaccine.’ Unless people believe that public health is vital and it’s something that they need to incorporate into how they live their life plans.”

Vasan writes about a recent instance in Rockland Country, New York, when a man was diagnosed with polio, and also of the emergence of poliovirus in wastewater samples in New York City. A quick response by public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helped contain the disease. Nonetheless, the U.S. is one of 30 countries in which the poliovirus circulates.

The CDC states while there is no cure for polio, “it is preventable through safe and effective vaccination.” The polio vaccine is on the childhood immunization schedule, with the first dose given at 2 months, the second at 4 months and the third between 6 months and 15 months.

Kavanagh said, “unfortunately there are too many loopholes or opt-outs for either religious beliefs or other reasons that allow too many people to go unvaccinated. When that occurs in a large community, then you’d have a number of individuals that are at high risk of getting polio because you no longer have herd immunity.”

Kavanagh points out that over 85% of the population needs to be vaccinated against polio before such herd immunity can take place. “Unfortunately, 70% of infections can be asymptomatic and those not vaccinated tend to have similar cultural views and encounter each other socially. Another 25% of polio infections are mild. Only one in 200 infections result in paralysis and of those 5% to 10% will die.”

Most patients who contract the polio virus do well, and most do not know they are infected. However, those who develop paralytic polio face a devastating life-altering disease.

“The polio vaccine is safe and highly effective, which is why everyone should become vaccinated,” said Kavanagh.