People are being advised to ensure they and their children are up to date with their polio vaccinations after reports the virus was spreading in the UK for the first time in decades.
Health authorities have declared a national incident after the virus was detected in London sewage samples between February and May 2022, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
The agency said it was “probable” that vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (VDPV2) had spread between “closely linked” people in north-east London and an “urgent” inquiry has been launched to see if a wider one Transmission is taking place in the capital.
Health Minister Sajid Javid said he was “not particularly concerned” about detection of the virus, which in rare cases can cause paralysis in unvaccinated people.
He told BBC Radio pm program that UKHSA “reminded me that as a country we have very high immunization rates against polio,” adding, “We’ve been declared polio-free since 2003 and have had no cases since.”
No cases have yet been reported in connection with the suspected outbreak, as the virus, which causes asymptomatic infection in most people, has so far only been detected in sewage.
However, health officials have urged the public to ensure they are fully immunized against the virus, which was declared eradicated in the UK in 2003 due to high vaccination rates, with the last wild case detected in 1984.
The virus detected in sewage by the UKHSA is not ‘wild-type’ polio, but a version of the virus originating from the live oral polio vaccine (OPV), which the UK stopped vaccinating people with in 2004.
The OPV creates gut immunity, and people can shed the vaccine-derived virus in their feces for several weeks after vaccination, which can then be spread in undervaccinated communities through poor hand hygiene, contaminated water and food, and, in rarer cases, through coughing and sneezing.
What do health experts advise as an answer?
“Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the overall risk to the public is extremely low,” said Dr. Vanessa Saliba, Consulting Epidemiologist at the UKHSA.
“Vaccine-derived poliovirus has the potential to spread, particularly in communities where vaccine uptake is lower. In rare cases, individuals who are not fully vaccinated may become paralyzed. So if you or your child are not up to date on their polio vaccinations, it is important that you contact your GP to catch up, or if you are unsure, check your Red Book.
“Most of the UK population will be protected from vaccination during childhood, but in some communities with low immunization 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 quickly report any suspected cases to the UKHSA, although no cases have been reported or confirmed to date.”
Jane Clegg, chief nurse at the NHS in London, said the majority of Londoners are fully protected against polio and need not take any further action.
But the NHS will start reaching out to parents of children under five in London who are not up to date with their polio vaccinations to invite them to get protected, Ms Clegg said.
“Meanwhile, parents can also check their child’s vaccination status in their Red Book, and people should contact their GP practice to book a vaccination if they or their child are not fully up to date,” she added .
How do I know if I’m fully vaccinated?
The polio vaccine is given by the NHS as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine when a child is eight, 12 and 16 weeks old. It is given again as part of the 4-in-1 (DTaP/IPV) preschool refresher at age 3 years and four months and as part of the 3-in-1 (Td/IPV) teen refresher at age 14.
All of these vaccines must have been given for a person to be fully vaccinated, although babies who have received two or three doses have significant protection.
Latest figures show that in the UK almost 95 per cent of children by the age of two have received the correct number of doses. However, in London this drops to almost 90 percent.
As for the pre-school boosters, only 71 per cent of children in London have had them by the age of five.
How do I check my vaccination history?
If you are not sure which vaccinations you have received, you can ask your family doctor. The NHS app also allows some users to see their vaccination records.
The family doctor and broadcaster Dr. Ellie Cannon pointed out that “when you check your polio shots, or your child’s, they rarely refer to it as ‘polio.'”
“They are labeled: DTaP/IPV or dTaP/IPV or 6 in 1 or 5 in 1. Teenage boosters are known as Td/IPV or 3 in 1 tweeted.
Alasdair Munro, Pediatric Resident and Clinical Research Fellow at Southampton University Hospital, said: “If for some reason your child is not vaccinated against polio – now would be the absolute BEST time to do so. Contact your GP today.”