Infectious disease expert suggests focus on routine vaccinations amid polio resurgence

This 2014 illustration made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicts a polio virus particle. (Sarah Poser, Meredith Boyter Newlove/CDC via AP)

A Hamilton-based infectious disease expert is suggesting Canada and local health agencies make a larger push to promote immunization against polio amid a recent rise in detection of the virus among western countries.

Professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University Dr. Dawn Bowdish told 900 CHML’s Billy Kelly Show that the affliction, eradicated in Canada nearly 30 years ago, has notably made a comeback in some Middle Eastern countries, the U.K. and the United States.

“Unfortunately, it looks like it may actually be spreading in some of those locations due to the fact that people have not been fully vaccinated,” Bowdish said.

Recent wastewater testing initiatives, largely implemented by North American municipalities in recent times to track COVID-19, have now begun testing for the polio virus due to an uptick in cases worldwide — most notably in New York City, when health officials revealed an unvaccinated young adult contracted polio this summer.

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Polio was once one of the world’s most feared diseases, with annual outbreaks causing thousands of cases of paralysis.

The U.S. officially declared the elimination of the disease in 1979, however, cases have cropped up occasionally, usually in people who have travelled to other countries.

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Bowdish says polio was never fully eradicated worldwide simply because vaccines couldn’t get to everyone over the years due to resources having to be mobilized for other health crises.

The World Health Organization considers polio very contagious and says it spreads mostly from person to person, through contaminated water and via fecal particles.

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However, it can also spread through droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, though less common.

Most infected people have no visible symptoms. About a quarter of those will endure a few days of flu-like symptoms, such as fever, sore throat, headache and nausea.

Worst-case scenarios have seen a few rare cases resulting in paralysis, permanent disability and death.

Bowdish says unvaccinated individuals are most susceptible to getting polio, with the fatality rate for adults through the onset of “paralytic infection” as high as 30 per cent.

In mid-August, Canada‘s chief public health officer said plans were underway to sift through Canadian sewage to test for and measure new health threats like polio and monkeypox.

Dr. Theresa Tam said experts at the National Microbiology Lab have now discovered a promising approach to detect monkeypox in wastewater and will use the infrastructure developed during the pandemic to look for it.

According to Bowdish, because most Canadians are vaccinated against polio, there is strong protection against the virus.

However, she does believe officials should put more emphasis on public health messaging to ensure everyone is getting routine vaccinations.

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“There’s not really a treatment for the infection other than supporting specific symptoms,” said Bowdish.

“So vaccination is your treatment, it’s prevention.”

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