Public health experts sound the alarm as new polio cases emerge

Polio had been considered eliminated from the U.S. since 1979, when the last known case of the original strain of the polio virus was detected, while the global vaccination campaign has decreased cases by 99.9 percent. But the virus now seems to be gaining a foothold again in some countries. Dr. Yvonne Maldonado of the Stanford School of Medicine joins William Brangham to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Polio had been considered eliminated from the U.S. since 1979, when the last known case of the original strain of the polio virus was detected, and around the globe, a successful vaccination campaign has decreased cases by 99.9 percent.

    But now the virus seems to be gaining a foothold once again in countries that thought they were free of it.

    William Brangham has our look.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    In the past few months, polio has reemerged in the Western Hemisphere. Eight cases have been detected in Israel this year. And the virus has been found in London's wastewater system. Now it's back here in the United States as well. In July, an unvaccinated man in Rockland County, New York, was infected and paralyzed by this preventable, but incurable virus.

    Sewage samples taken in New York City show the polio virus had likely already been spreading there for months.

    To discuss this, I'm joined again by Dr. Yvonne Maldonado. She's chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases and a professor of pediatrics at Stanford.

    Dr. Maldonado, great to have you back in the "NewsHour."

    So we have this one case of an unvaccinated man in New York getting polio and developing paralysis and this evidence that it is circulating in New York's wastewater.

    Help us understand the context. How troubling are those two examples?

    Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, Committee on Infectious Diseases Chair, American Academy of Pediatrics: Well, it is concerning.

    I think people who are vaccinated should not be concerned. But for those who are unvaccinated, this is a real red flag. And the reason is that we have not seen polio in the United States since the 1970s and '80s. And polio was declared eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.

    So the fact that we're starting to see not only a case of paralytic disease, but polio in the wastewater, is really concerning for ongoing community transmission. And people who are unvaccinated are at risk for developing paralysis.

  • William Brangham:

    As you mentioned, yes, there is this very good vaccine. Almost every kid in America has to get it to go to public school.

    And yet we're seeing this spread in communities where the vaccination rates are not so high, the Hasidic Jewish community in Upstate New York in particular. Is that a problem for us? I mean, do you understand why those communities have such low rates?

  • Dr. Yvonne Maldonado:

    Well, we don't know the particulars of this particular county right now, but we do know the rates are low. We don't know why.

    But we do know that this is a community that had a sustained measles outbreak a few years ago, and a lot of that was really due to lower vaccination rates. And, by the way, in general, around the country, since the COVID pandemic, we have seen some pockets of undervaccination around the country. Not clear why that is.

    Perhaps people just never were able to get out to their providers to get their vaccines during the shutdowns. But it's certainly time to think about getting children and young adults vaccinated if they are not up to date.

  • William Brangham:

    Given that most of the country does have pretty decent coverage, is it your sense that we should expect cases to go up nationwide, or not?

  • Dr. Yvonne Maldonado:

    Well, I do think that this could mean that we might have sporadic outbreaks. It's a real lesson for us to remember to check on our immunizations for our children, and actually for adults as well, because this vaccine is available for all ages.

    But I'm not worried, again, because most of the country has very high vaccination rates. These vaccines work, presumably for life. So we don't generally need boosters. But there may be pockets around the country of individuals who have low vaccination rates.

    So, in those populations, I would be particularly concerned.

  • William Brangham:

    Then shifting to what's happening elsewhere in the world, we came so close in so many nations to really eradicating this virus, but there has been some faltering in that, and polio is starting to get its foothold back again.

    What is driving that globally?

  • Dr. Yvonne Maldonado:

    Back in the '80s, when the World Health Organization declared that they would eradicate polio, we had hundreds of thousands of cases of polio all around the world.

    And over those years, what has happened is, we have reduced the number of polio cases last year to a handful of cases all around the world. With high levels of detection — a detection capacity, we were only able to find a few cases.

    This year, the number is up to just a little under two dozen cases. So we are still concerned that the numbers aren't gone. But we are making progress. The concern right now is that, with COVID resources being — really taking up the time and energy that needs to continue other vaccinations, that we will miss out on our ability to continue to vaccinate children against polio as time goes on.

    So one of the concerns from the global level is that we keep those vaccination efforts up. That's really the way to eradicate this disease and make sure that children are safe all around the world.

  • William Brangham:

    It seems that — like in an echo of COVID in a way, that the equitable distribution of the vaccine is still an issue here, plus getting people to take that vaccine when it's actually delivered.

  • Dr. Yvonne Maldonado:

    Yes, at this point, what's really been a problem around the world is, where you see pockets of outbreaks, these are primarily low-resource countries where they have very few resources to actually give out vaccines.

    The vaccines themselves are not highly expensive, but the administration costs and operational costs are maybe substantial for some of these countries. And then some of these are areas of conflict, where it's been hard to get people in to get vaccinated.

    So we're really trying to make sure that, at the global level, there are resources put into making sure that we can complete this task.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Yvonne Maldonado at Stanford University, thank you so much for being here.

  • Dr. Yvonne Maldonado:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment