Polio Is Back in the U.S. and U.K.
Here’s how that happened
The discovery that polio has partially paralyzed a young man in a New York suburb feels wearying, yet shocking. Wearying, because it’s the third highly infectious virus to make a surprise landfall in the US in three years, after monkeypox and SARS-CoV-2. And shocking because, for decades, polio hasn’t spread in rich nations, where sanitation, vaccination, and solid public health funding are presumed to keep populations safe. Transmission was eliminated in the US in 1979, all of the Americas in 1994, and the UK in 2003. And yet there it was, in the wastewater of the county where the young man lives and a neighboring one, in New York City, and also in London.
Of course, polio exists in other parts of the world. A global campaign to eradicate it has been laboring on that exhausting task since 1988. Last year, poliovirus caused paralysis—which can’t be treated or cured—in two countries where it has never been contained, and another 21 where it has rebounded.
Disease experts, though, were not surprised to see it reappear in Western nations. For years they've watched as protection against the disease was undermined by funding cuts, vaccine hesitancy, forgetfulness—and the wily nature of the virus. "This should be a wake-up call to people," said Heidi Larson, a professor and founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "We have been saying that until we can get this fully eradicated, we are all at risk."
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