How do you catch polio? ‘Urgent’ investigation underway after virus is found in sewage

Polio ‘could spread and mutate’ says Angus Dalgleish

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The polio virus, which was confirmed eradicated in Britain in 2003 due to the success of vaccines, is now back and being traced in London wastewater. The virus has been found 116 times in tests of London’s waste since February, with these samples connected to those detected recently in Jerusalem, Israel, and New York.

The samples detected have been linked to the oral polio vaccine used in other countries, which contains the live virus.

The vaccine is safe for those who consume it and it provides a large amount of immunity however, it does have the potential to spread from person to person in areas that don’t have the same protection.

This will start to become a problem if it continues to spread, as the safe form of the virus used in the vaccine can mutate and evolve until it starts to cause symptoms again, which can lead to paralysis.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said most of the samples detected are the safe vaccine form of polio, but “a few” have mutated enough to be dangerous.

As a result, the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended a rapid booster campaign for children aged one to nine to reduce the risk and raise immunity levels as soon as possible.

What is polio?

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is an infectious disease that in its most severe form, can cause nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death.

It spreads from person to person and invades the nervous system, which can cause muscle weakness and in more severe cases, total paralysis in a matter of hours, according to the World Health Organisation.

How do you catch polio?

According to the NHS, polio usually spreads through contact with the stool of an infected person.

This is usually picked up from not washing your hands properly and putting them in your mouth, or less commonly from contaminated food and water, or through coughs or sneezes.

Those who have the virus can excrete the virus in their stool for several weeks, but people are most contagious right before symptoms start and soon after they appear.

However, the chance of catching the virus remains “extremely low”, according to the NHS, as most people are fully vaccinated.

A statement on its website reads: “There’s still an extremely small risk of catching it when travelling in a country where polio is still found, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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“If you’re not vaccinated, there is also a very small risk of getting it through contact with a person bringing the polio virus from these countries when they return to the UK.”

Where has polio been found in London so far?

The first alarm was raised in June after a series of tests at Beckton Sewage Works, which serves north and east London, detected the virus in its water waste.

According to the BBC, a more detailed analysis of the sewage system has since found the virus in:

  • Barnet
  • Brent
  • Camden
  • Enfield
  • Hackney
  • Haringey
  • Islington
  • Waltham Forest

So far, the virus has only been detected in sewage samples and no associated cases of paralysis have been reported in the UK, but investigations are currently underway to establish if any community transmission is occurring.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, Consultant Epidemiologist at UKHSA said: “Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the risk to the public overall is extremely low.

“Most of the UK population will be protected from vaccination in childhood, but in some communities with low vaccine coverage, individuals may remain at risk.

“We are urgently investigating to better understand the extent of this transmission and the NHS has been asked to swiftly report any suspected cases to the UKHSA, though no cases have been reported or confirmed so far.

“If you or your child are not up to date with your polio vaccinations it’s important you contact your GP to catch up or if unsure check your Red Book.”

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