POMONA: When Brittany Strickland heard that the United States recorded its first polio case in almost a decade, she was ‘deathly scared’ — the 33-year-old wasn’t vaccinated against the disabling disease.

“My mom was an anti-vaxxer, so I found out that I had never had any polio vaccines as a child,” the designer explained to AFP, after finally receiving a shot this week.

“It’s horrifying,” said Strickland. “You don’t think it’s gonna happen here, and then a bunch of people don’t get vaccinated and now we’re in this situation.”

Strickland was inoculated in Pomona, in New York’s Rockland County where the first US polio case since 2013 was identified in July in a young man who was not inoculated and the disease was causing him paralysis.

Infected man was a member of the Orthodox Jewish community where vaccine hesitancy tends to run high

Officials said he had not travelled abroad, suggesting the disease had transmitted locally.

Local news reports say the infected man was a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, where vaccine hesitancy tends to run high. Rockland is home to a large population of Orthodox Jews. Last week, more than a dozen rabbis published an open letter urging members to get vaccinated.

Shoshana Bernstein, an independent health communicator and Orthodox Jew who is educating members on the importance of getting immunized, says “any community that’s more insular” is susceptible to anti-vax messaging. However, she says, they do have elders in the community who can talk from first-hand experience.

While it is too early to say whether the solitary case is part of a limited or more widespread outbreak, John Dennehy, a virologist at the City University of New York, fears it could just be “the tip of the iceberg”. “Only a proportion of the people who are infected will ever show any symptoms, and only a fraction of those people will ever get paralytic polio,” he says.

“But if enough people are getting infected, eventually we start seeing more and more paralytic polio.”

Since July, the disease has been detected in wastewater samples in the area, as well as in a neighbouring county and in New York City sewage, suggesting the virus is spreading. The developments are leading experts to fear that polio, once one of the most feared diseases in America but now endemic to just a couple of developing countries, may wreak devastation stateside again.

“I had considered it a virus that was on its way to extinction,” said Dennehy.

Health officials are urging anyone not immunized to get vaccinated, with Rockland County offering free shots.

The area, 48 kilometres north of Manhattan, has a polio vaccination rate well below the national average. Sixty per cent of two-year-olds have received a vaccine, compared to 79 per cent state-wide, New York’s health department says. Nationally, the figure is 92pc, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends people receive the first of four doses at two months old.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2022

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