Polio: the comeback kid

In April this year, Malawi reported a case of polio, its first since 1992. The WHO identified this as type 1 wild poliovirus, a strain that has been in circulation in Pakistan. In fact, till this year, polio has been "eradicated" outside parts of Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But after Malawi, Israel reported a case, its first since 1988, identified as vaccine-derived polio. Mozambique came to the party weeks later with its first case in three decades. Civic authorities also discovered poliovirus in sewage in Kolkata, India, and London, UK.

Then in July, New York reported its first polio case in over a decade, in an unvaccinated (of course) adult. Reports said this was a case of vaccine-derived polio. And the virus was found in wastewater in New York,, with health officials saying 100s of people could be infected.

Pakistan has reported 14 cases this year, before the recent flooding. Nigeria has recorded 30 cases.

Across Africa, many nations - Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe - have started mass inoculation campaigns against polio.

However, it is the report of an infection in New York that has distressed public health authorities the most. Because, for many years, polio hasn't been a factor in wealthy nations, where they believed high levels of sanitation and vaccination had put paid to this scourge at least.

But polio is definitely back in the US. And in sewage in the UK, which possibly indicates even in people there.

So what gives?

We believe it is the rise of the modern anti-vaxxer, enabled by Facebook (sorry Meta), WhatsApp, Google and YouTube universities, who've been spreading vaccine disinformation at a scale and speed unprecedented.

With Covid vaccines, we saw the deep divide between the vaccinated and the unscientific. But this divide isn't limited to Covid alone. In the US, the rate of unvaccinated kids is increasing every year. Anti-vaccine groups in France forced a doctor to shut his vaccination clinic. Vaccine denial is being weaponised as a demonstration of free will/independence/choice, what-have-you.

With polio, what we obviously need is mass vaccination campaigns all over the world to ensure there is no resurgence.

No vaccination campaign will work unless we find a way to break through the obstinacy of the deniers or make critical vaccinations enforceable, shades of Big Brother notwithstanding.

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