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Is polio re-emerging as a threat in Britain?

Polio has been found in east London sewage on a few occasions. Yuri Prasad asks why and what it means for public health
Issue 2812
A child in Cameroon, Africa receives her dose of the oral polio vaccine.

A child in Cameroon, Africa receives her dose of the oral polio vaccine.

How worried should we be about polio after scientists found the disease in London’s sewage system last month? The Sun, along with many other right wing newspapers, thinks we should be very anxious. “Polio is spreading in the UK for the first time in decades, officials claim” it hollered, while offering readers “six signs of polio you need to know”.

Researchers have detected the poliovirus in the sewage system in east London on a number of occasions this year. Its original source is likely to be someone recently inoculated with an oral version of the polio vaccine.

This is used today mainly in countries where there are higher rates of polio circulation and where public health and hygiene infrastructure is weaker.

The oral polio vaccine works by passing a small quantity of a live poliovirus into our bodies and thereby teaching our immune system how to defeat it. We then shed parts of the virus in our poo.

It is normal for small traces of the poliovirus to be found in sewage from time to time. However, the virus has turned up regularly in east London in recent months, and several closely related versions of it are showing.

It is rare but possible for the oral vaccine virus to revert to a virulent form that can cause disease. Changes to the virus found in sewage samples suggest the virus may be spreading among a few people in a catchment area of over 4 million people. There is, however, no direct evidence of this so far.

With high levels of immunisation in Britain—and vaccines being nearly 100 percent effective—any outbreak should be relatively easy to control. For most adults polio is not a serious illness, even if they are unvaccinated. Most people report few if any symptoms if they contract it.

But for children and those with weakened immune systems it is different. Polio for them can cause terrible damage, in severe cases it can cause paralysis.

The problem in London is not so much that there may be a limited amount of polio in circulation, but that vaccination rates in parts of the city have fallen to dangerously low levels. In some areas they are below the 95 percent rate for two year olds that the World Health Organisation says is necessary to eradicate the disease.

It is particularly true of London, where fewer than half of 13 to 14 year olds received their booster vaccine last year. That’s why health officials declared a “national incident”.

Falling vaccination rates mirror almost every indicator of health service deterioration. In 2012-13 the percentage of children vaccinated by their first or second birthday was easily above 95 percent but then followed a steady decline.

Retired GP Kambiz Boomla told Socialist Worker, “The pressure on practices is to get to the low hanging fruit, the people that will readily respond to calls to get their children vaccinated. But what happens to those in harder to reach communities, and those that have come from situations which might make them more hesitant about vaccinations?”

Kambiz says people who have come to Britain after experiencing Western military intervention can be difficult to convince. “In east London we quite often hear people that have come from war-torn countries saying, ‘We don’t trust your bombs, so why should we trust your vaccines?’”

The virus is endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan—two countries that have been at the forefront of the West’s “War on Terror”. If we are really to wipe out polio, then our government must direct huge resources towards public health in Britain and replace military intervention with healthcare for all.

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