Polio Is the Next Front in the Disinformation Wars for Anti-Vaxxers
In an era when we’re still dealing with COVID and monkeypox, the last thing we want is polio.
By Joanne Kenen
Alarmed by a polio case in New York state and detection of the virus in wastewater in the region, White House and state health officials are developing ways to monitor, detect and try to halt any spread of polio decades after the virus was declared eradicated in the United States.
Any strategy they set will center on vaccination. There is no cure or treatment.
But unlike the 1950s and ‘60s, when the public largely embraced new vaccines as salvation from a disease that terrified communities and condemned paralyzed children to iron lungs, public health officials today have to deal with rising anti-vax misinformation and disinformation. So the last thing they need is a particularly inartful and confusing expression — “vaccine-derived polio” — to make their job even harder, several worried experts told Nightly.
It’s so easy to think “vaccine-derived” means that people contract polio from the vaccine itself. That’s not the case, stressed Heidi Larson, a medical anthropologist who is one of the world’s leading experts on vaccine hesitancy and founding director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“You do not get the virus from taking the vaccine,” she added.
“Vaccine-derived polio” is what afflicted a 20-year-old man in Rockland County, outside New York City. He is unvaccinated and he lives in an area with particularly low vaccination rates, estimated at around 60 percent or lower. He is now partly paralyzed. And traces of polio have been found in wastewater in his region, at other sites in New York and nearby states. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency, calling for stepped-up vaccination efforts in a state where polio immunization rates have dropped below 80 percent.
To make things even more complicated, the global “polio eradication campaign” refers to “wild” or “endemic” polio — where Afghanistan and Pakistan are the two remaining trouble spots (although even they’ve made lots of progress recently). The U.S. ended “wild” polio in 1979 and was declared polio-free about 15 years later. In glowing international eradication updates from public health groups, “vaccine-derived” polio doesn’t count — even though it still paralyzes and kills people.
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