With polio cases reappearing in the United States after decades of it being eliminated, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging families to make sure children are vaccinated against the disease.
A polio case was identified in Rockland County, New York, last month and the virus has since been detected in the wastewater in New York City. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official told CNN last week that the case, which appeared in a community with very low vaccination rates, is “just the very, very tip of the iceberg” and there “must be several hundred cases in the community circulating.”
While no cases have been reported in Alabama, routine vaccination rates for children, including polio immunizations, have dropped since the onset of the pandemic.
Among school-aged children, polio vaccinations have decreased by 10% from 2019-21 and by 9% for kids aged 0-3 years old. From 2019 to 2021, child vaccination rates for 16 diseases that are routinely vaccinated against dropped by 26% statewide.
“Polio has been largely eradicated in the United States as a result of most persons being vaccinated against this virus. In almost sixty years, people have not seen the damage polio can cause, including viral meningitis, paralysis, and death,” said Dr. Karen Landers, Chief Medical Officer at ADPH. “ADPH urges parents to continue to follow the guidance of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, other expert vaccine resources, and their healthcare providers to protect their children against all vaccine-preventable diseases.”
The polio vaccine, which was introduced in 1955, is 99% effective against the virus. In 1994, the World Health Organization declared the Americas to be polio-free.
Before the vaccine was available, several epidemics of the disease occurred causing people to avoid crowds and public gatherings. Nearly 16,000 cases were diagnosed each year, which led to severe disabilities, including paralysis, in children. People who survive polio can still develop a post polio syndrome, with weakness, muscle tissue loss, pain and other symptoms, two to four decades after having suffered the disease.
Dr. Katrina Skinner, a pediatrician and president of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told AL.com in December that while her practice did see an initial decline in visits in the first few months of the pandemic, impacting vaccination rates among her patients, she said she also has noticed increasing vaccine hesitancy among the families she cares for.
“Since all of this stuff has gone on with the pandemic and with the COVID vaccine becoming so politicized, that has made parents in general second guess their thoughts about vaccines,” said Skinner. “Parents who typically are never anti vaccine, never questioned my advice about vaccinating their children, they’re now starting to doubt me more.”
Alabama state law requires children to be current on vaccinations before enrolling in childcare centers and schools. Required vaccines include polio, as well as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, Haemophilus influenzae type b and chickenpox.
Certificates of Immunization must be presented to schools at the beginning of the school year. Only medical and religious exemptions for vaccination are allowed; philosophical or moral objections are not recognized.
“Getting children all recommended vaccines is one of the most important things parents can do to help protect their kids’ health, the health of their classmates, and their community. Childhood vaccines protect against serious and potentially life-threatening diseases,” read a statement released by ADPH in July.