Polio virus detected in London sewage; no cases reported

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LONDON – The UK has declared a rare “national accident” after traces of the highly contagious polio virus were found in London’s sewage, the government said.

Britain, like many developed nations, has been largely polio-free since the 1980s due to the high prevalence of the vaccine. No cases have been reported so far.

However, his health safety agency and medical regulator said in a statement Wednesday that authorities had found traces of poliovirus in wastewater samples collected by the London Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, as part of “routine surveillance.” The purification plant covers a population of almost 4 million inhabitants in the north and east of the capital.

“Investigations are ongoing after several closely related viruses were found in wastewater samples taken between February and May,” the statement said.

The detection suggests that it is likely that “there has been some spread among closely related individuals in North and East London who are now losing the type 2 poliovirus strain in their feces,” the statement said.

Vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, unlike the wild or natural strain, is a weakened form of the live virus used in oral polio vaccines. Many countries, including the UK and the US, have abandoned the use of the oral vaccine as it can spread to unvaccinated people. But it remains common in nations like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

The vaccine-derived poliovirus detected in the UK “can on rare occasions cause serious illness, such as paralysis, in people who are not fully vaccinated,” British health authorities said.

So far, the polio virus has only been detected in sewage samples, but investigations are underway to determine if transmission is occurring in the community.

Like other nations, Britain is also grappling with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and cases of monkeypox.

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The UK was declared polio-free by the World Health Organization in 2003 and the last case of wild or natural contracted polio was in 1984, according to the government.

“Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the risk to the general public is extremely low,” Vanessa Saliba, an epidemiologist consultant with the UK’s Health Safety Agency, said in a statement.

“We are urgently investigating to better understand the extent of this transmission and the NHS has been asked to quickly report any suspected cases,” he said, adding that “no cases have been reported or confirmed so far.”

Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease that invades the nervous system and spreads primarily through fecal matter contamination.

There is no cure, but vaccinations since the 1960s, mainly in childhood, have changed the rules of the game allowing many countries to eradicate wild polio. The UK maintains vaccination coverage of over 95%, the government said, largely through a routine infant immunization program.

The UK’s health safety agency says it normally detects one to three “isolates of poliovirus per year” in wastewater, but they are normally one-off and unrelated to each other. “In this case, the isolates identified between February and June 2022 are genetically related. This prompted the need to investigate the extent of the transmission, “she added.

The most likely scenario is that a recently vaccinated individual entered the UK from a country where an oral polio vaccine was used. The UK stopped such oral vaccines in 2004, authorities said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that “surveillance, vaccination and investment for #End Polio is critical, “following news of the UK announcement.

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The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which works to end all cases of wild and vaccine-related viruses, said that although largely eradicated, the disease remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“It is important that all countries, especially those with a high volume of travel and contacts with polio-affected countries and areas, strengthen surveillance in order to quickly detect any imports of new viruses and facilitate a rapid response,” said the group in a statement.

Meanwhile, London health officials are urging parents to ensure children are fully vaccinated to prevent any outbreaks. The NHS will begin contacting parents of children under the age of 5 in the capital who are not up to date with vaccinations, the government said.

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