Popping the Polio Bubble

Popping the Polio Bubble

While we are still in the throes of one pandemic (COVID-19) and a possible ‘other pandemic’ (monkeypox), the last thing we want to hear about is the resurgence of this nuisance that should have just gone to the ground already. Alas, as is the way of unwelcome gatecrashers, polio is now rearing its ugly head again. This means it is ‘go time’ for public health experts and vaccines. But before you go looking for the shocking headlines and anxiety thirst traps, a little back-to-the-basics crash course…

1. Who Runs the Show?


Name: Polio. Alias: Poliomyelitis. Cause: Poliovirus. Status: Mostly eradicated, but recently in the news for showing up again. Symptoms: Usually asymptomatic, but can cause nausea, fever, sore throat, fatigue, headache, stomach ache; and in more serious cases, paresthesia (tingling or pins-and-needles sensation in the legs), meningitis (infection of the brain or spinal cord covering), and paralysis. We will now explore the current maelstrom of rumors and news from the world of polio.

2. The Story So Far


We are now well into the twenty-first century. Until recently, the polio cases across the world numbered just 13 because of the vaccine invented in the mid-twentieth century; with this, there is pride and hope, but also resignation. Why resignation? Because despite all efforts, there are still some endemic cases, and to top it all, a new case for the first time in so long. There is a pattern to polio cases cropping up, though – it typically happens in unsanitary conditions and among people who have not received polio vaccines or, in this recent case, because of a polio vaccine.

3. No Conspiracy, Just Facts


Now before you go assuming this is fodder for the anti-vaxxers, hear us out. This is most certainly not an encouragement to skip vaccines because even the vaccine that is at fault here is not technically at fault. In the recently reported polio case from New York, here are the facts laid bare: The patient was unvaccinated. Strike one. The form of polio contracted was courtesy of the live, weakened oral polio vaccine used in some countries (this form is unavailable in the United States). But how and why did this happen, and what does this mean for us?

4. The Science


The live virus in the oral polio vaccine is a weakened form that is incapable of causing polio by itself. What does happen though is the excretion of the virus when you have a bowel movement. This virus can spread to people in contact with the vaccinated person and mutate over time. The upshot? This can lead to paralysis. Scary though this seems, for such an unlikely event to actually occur, you would have to be unvaccinated and unhygienic or living in unsanitary conditions. So the moral of the story is actually to get vaccinated, not the opposite. And to practice good hygiene.

5. Ban Oral Vaccines?


Absolutely not. Because, as already stated, the onus is on people to actually get vaccinated and maintain hygiene. In fact, the virus present in feces can contribute to providing immunity to unvaccinated people. Besides that, it actually stops the transmission of poliovirus better than the inactivated vaccine. Not to mention – the cost-effectiveness and easy administration bonuses.

6. The Bad News


If you thought this solitary case could quickly be contained, you are unfortunately wrong on the solitary part. Experts say that if one case that came to light presented with paralysis means that there were probably thousands of asymptomatic cases, to begin with. In other words, the danger you cannot see could be lurking anywhere. In still other words, if you want to avoid a calamity, get vaccinated.


The whole polio fiasco does sound like a pretty big deal. But, the fact is it can precipitate a global crisis if we do not head it off at the pass. So, to recap: First off, relax; the odds are low. But second, do not be complacent; odds are still odds. Get vaccinated and stay safe. Be the player, not the game.

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