Contagious polio spreading in UK for first time in years in ‘national incident’

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Highly-contagious polio is spreading in UK for first time in years, leading UK health officials to declare a national incident.

Traces of the polio virus have been found in sewage in London, prompting the response from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) who have called on families to check on unvaccinated children.

The infectious disease – which can cause paralysis and death – was found during a routine check after samples were collected from the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works.

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Officials have said that it has spread between closely linked individuals in northeast London.

Several closely-related polio viruses were found in sewage samples between February and May this year.

It as now been classified as a 'vaccine-derived' poliovirus type 2 (VDPV2) after evolving.

The infected people, likely close family members, are now producing the strain in their faeces.

Oral vaccines against polio offered abroad contain an “attenuated” form of the virus – weakened in a laboratory so it cannot cause disease.

These vaccine-derived forms of polio remain in faeces and are sometimes picked up in routine UK testing.

It is thought someone from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Nigeria who had recently received the oral vaccine has seen this weakened form of the virus mutate inside them. They've then transmitted it to others.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at the UKHSA, said: "Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the risk to the public overall is extremely low.

"Vaccine-derived poliovirus has the potential to spread, particularly in communities where vaccine uptake is lower. On rare occasions it can cause paralysis in people who are not fully vaccinated so if you or your child are not up to date with your polio vaccinations it's important you contact your GP to catch up or, if unsure, check your red book.

"We are urgently investigating to better understand the extent of this transmission and the NHS has been asked to swiftly report any suspected cases to the UKHSA, though no cases have been reported or confirmed so far."

As well as declaring a national incident, the UKHSA has alerted the World Health Organisation, meaning that we could be stripped of our polio-free status.

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Polio was a major public health issue from the late Victorian era.

One in 200 cases sees patients irreversibly paralysed, with around 10% of those paralysed dying when their breathing muscles stop working.

There is no cure once infected, with vaccination the only way to stop the virus.

The NHS offers everyone three doses of its polio vaccine, although uptake has dropped – particularly in London – as of late.

Those who are vaccinated with three doses are likely to be at least 99% protected from paralysis.


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