New lies about an old disease pose a threat to public health efforts
This 2014 illustration made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depicts a polio virus particle. On Thursday, July 21, 2022, New York health officials reported a polio case, the first in the U.S. in nearly a decade. (Sarah Poser, Meredith Boyter Newlove/CDC via AP)

On Tuesday, POLITICO reported that a new false claim being spread about polio is threatening to undermine public health efforts to contain a new outbreak of the virus in the United States, after the country had long been free of the illness for decades.

The claim stems from the fact that the strain detected in New York is what is medically termed a "vaccine-derived polio" virus, which has led some to claim that the vaccine for polio is actually what's making people sick in the first place. That is not what the term actually means, though, said British vaccine expert and medical anthropologist Heidi Larson.

"The United States, and many wealthy countries, use a polio injection that contains zero, zilch, nary a drop of live polio virus," wrote Joanne Kenen. "Many lower-income countries, for a variety of economic and logistic reasons, use an oral vaccine that contains a teeny, tiny trace of a weakened, or 'attenuated,' form of the virus. People who are immunized that way (usually babies and young children) are not 'deriving' polio from it. They are getting protection from it. The oral vaccine is extremely safe, Larson said."

"But people who get the oral version do excrete minute traces of the virus, which can reach the water supply and sometimes mutate. Exposure to that mutated version is how people 'derive' polio," said the report. "Those water-borne traces 'don’t infect anyone when people are vaccinated,' Larson told Nightly. 'Where it thrives … is where there’s low vaccination.' During Covid, vaccination programs lagged across the world, for polio and other childhood diseases. The spread of anti-vax sentiments isn’t helping."

This comes as many countries still struggle with anti-vaccination pushback that has prevented full immunization against COVID. A recent report by ProPublica found that anti-vaccine leaders were already crafting their talking points against the COVID vaccine, even before any COVID vaccine was developed and before the public had any medical or scientific information about it.

"Most Americans are already vaccinated — but for anyone who wasn’t, or who can’t access childhood vaccination records to find out — getting another shot as an adult is not dangerous, both [former FDA deputy commissioner Josh] Sharfstein and Larson stressed," noted the report. "Meanwhile, the number of counties with vaccine-derived polio had been declining. This year it’s up again, to around 30, according to the CDC. This month, the U.S. was added to the list."

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