A recently confirmed polio case in Rockland County, New York has sparked concerns about whether people need a polio booster vaccine.
The polio case was found in an unvaccinated, previously healthy young adult who developed leg paralysis. Since the case was identified, health officials said they've also found evidence of poliovirus in wastewater samples, including in New York City.
"Based on earlier polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every one case of paralytic polio observed, there may be hundreds of other people infected," NYC State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a statement. "Coupled with the latest wastewater findings, the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of much greater potential spread."
Polio is a life-threatening and disabling disease caused by the poliovirus. The virus can spread from person to person, infect the spinal cord, and cause complications in the nervous system which can lead to paralysis. The degree of paralysis varies from mild to severe, but severe paralysis can be fatal.
There is no cure for polio. The polio vaccine is the only protection against the disease, as stated by the CDC.
If you have already completed your polio vaccine series, there is currently no recommendation for a polio booster shot in the United States, said Issac Dapkins, MD, chief medical officer of the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone.
However, in certain circumstances, some people may be able to get a booster shot.
“If someone is traveling to an endemic area where there is active polio virus, the CDC does recommend a one-time booster,” Dapkins said. “But for the general population, they have not recommended this.”
In addition, adults who had received three or more doses of the polio vaccine and are at higher risk of exposure to the poliovirus can get one lifetime booster dose of the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). If you didn't complete your regimen before, you should still seek out the remaining doses.
IPV is the only polio vaccine that has been used in the U.S. since 2000. Polio vaccination is a standard part of childhood immunization and is recommended to be given in four doses total.
A report from CNN said children between the ages of 1 and 9 living in London will be offered an extra dose of a targeted IPV. The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said this measure is meant to "ensure a high level of protection from paralysis and help reduce further spread of the virus.”
Loafman said there has not been a need for boosters because there has not been any polio exposure risk for over 20 years now.
“If we do indeed see an outbreak, as appears almost certain to be the case, it will be essential for those who have not completed any or all of their primary three-dose series to do so, and for those who have risk factors to get a single one-time booster dose,” he said.
Polio was essentially eradicated in the United States by 1979 thanks to widespread vaccination. That success led to a global initiative to eliminate polio worldwide.
The reemergence of polio in the United States directly correlates to the increasing number of unvaccinated people, according to Loafman.
“[It] is a tragic story of the mistrust in vaccination, and of course, concerning,” he said.
Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, director and founding dean of the program in public health at the University of California, Irvine, said that the reemergence of polio—partly due to an anti-vaccination mentality—is "extremely alarming" and "puts the lives of many people at risk."
Getting vaccinated will be a crucial part of controlling polio cases and eradicating the disease altogether, Boden-Albala added. “We can eradicate polio with vaccines, which have been tried and true for decades,” she said.
Andrew Handel, MD, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York, told Verywell that children who have received their complete four-dose polio vaccine series "will have strong immunity against the virus."
“For most people who are not in extremely high-risk circumstances will never need to get another dose of polio vaccine again," Handel said.
If you've never been vaccinated against polio, or you didn't complete the entire regimen as a child, you can still complete the three-dose series recommended for adults. You can check the recommended immunization schedule on CDC's website.
Handel reiterated that if you've been in close personal contact with people who have been infected with polio, you should consider getting a booster. "But outside of those very specific circumstances, there’s no recommendation to be getting a polio booster right now," he said.
If you are vaccinated against polio but are traveling to or live in an area where there is an active case of poliovirus, health experts recommend getting a booster shot. It’s also recommended to get vaccinated against polio if you never did so as a child. Speak with your health care provider about any questions or concerns regarding polio vaccinations and boosters.