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Polio’s Re-emergence Underscores Need to be Current on Vaccines

Lapse in vaccinations poses danger to kids, communities, pediatric infectious diseases specialist says.

Has a day gone by in the past couple of years that you have not heard the word “vaccine”? First it was COVID-19 and its multiple variants, which required the development of new vaccines. Then monkeypox took center stage, and though effective vaccines already existed, they were in short supply. Then, in July, the polio virus, the first case in the U.S. in almost a decade, was detected in an unvaccinated individual in Rockland County, N.Y. A single confirmed case may not seem like cause for concern, but experts say potentially 200 people around that case may have been exposed or are now carrying the virus. And while it may not result in paralysis – or even death – polio can have lasting, life-altering effects.

“As far as I’m seeing in the community, there hasn’t been a big concern” about the re-emergence of polio, says Fatma Levent, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist for AdventHealth Orlando, who is seeing firsthand the result of a lapse in routine childhood vaccinations. “However, there may be some outbreak fatigue. People just don’t want to hear about it much.”

As National Immunization Awareness Month draws to a close, the case of an individual contracting a disease long thought to be eradicated in the U.S. is a reminder of the importance of timely vaccines, no matter the month.

Lapse in vaccinations poses danger to kids, communities, pediatric infectious diseases specialist says.
Dr. Fatma Levent is a pediatric infectious diseases specialist.

As one in a series of routine childhood vaccines, the polio vaccine arrived on the scene in 1955. Unlike in other countries where the oral polio vaccine (OPV) may still be used, the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) has been the only form given in the U.S. since 2000. Three doses are administered between 2 months and 18 months, with a final dose given between the ages of 4 and 6.

However, when it comes to adhering to an immunization schedule, Dr. Levent says, “I feel like there have been many lapses of routine vaccinations for different reasons. And that probably correlates with the outbreaks we are seeing.” Consider that, according to the Florida Department of Health, the statewide immunization coverage level for 2-year-olds was 79.3% in 2021, down from 93.4% in 2020. A number of factors may be contributing to that decline, Dr. Levent says, including vaccine-hesitant parents, vaccine access and lack of follow-up with pediatricians for well checks, particularly during the pandemic.

Whatever the reason, the end result can be a “very intense encounter,” such as that experienced by Dr. Levent in the past year. An unvaccinated child under the age of 2 contracted the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae – which causes invasive pneumococcal infections that babies are immunized against – and ended up needing a lung transplant.

“We see them requiring hospitalization with severe presentations, and just knowing that it is a vaccine-preventable disease makes it that much more heartbreaking,” Dr. Levent says.

Dr. Levent recommends that parents go to trusted resources, including pediatricians, primary care physicians or other trusted sources with their questions, staying away from unreliable sources and social media posts with inaccurate information.

“It’s not only your children you’re protecting; it’s the whole community,” Dr. Levent says. “If people don’t get together and the systems fall apart, then we all are in the same boat. If we don’t act on it, unfortunately we’re going to continue to see issues rise and get exposed to infections that we could have prevented.”

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