Didn’t think you’d have “Decide whether to get the polio vaccine booster as an adult” on your 2022 List of Things to Do, did you? After all, wasn’t the U.S. declared polio-free back in 1979 years after the polio vaccine had become part of routine childhood vaccinations? But then again, you probably didn’t expect to have “Read about how the poliovirus has re-appeared again in U.S.” on your 2022 list either.
Well, the re-appearance of the poliovirus in the U.S. has many people now double-checking whether they got vaccinated against polio as a child and wondering whether they need a booster as an adult. As I covered for Forbes on August 6, an unvaccinated adult in New York has come down with paralytic polio, the first confirmed polio case in the U.S. since 2013. Plus, wastewater samples from the state have revealed presence of the virus, meaning that others, potentially hundreds of others, have already been infected with the virus. Obviously, anything that can cause paralysis is not a good thing to have. Neither is something that can cause death, because death would kind of ruin your day. So the return of the poliovirus, which used to leave an average of over 35,000 more people each year in the U.S. disabled, is clearly bad news.
Upon closer reflection, is this return really that much of a surprise? There’s a thing called cause-and-effect in nature. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared measles eliminated from the U.S. in 2000 due to successful vaccination efforts. But then after years of some personalities, politicians, and purposely anonymous social media accounts peppering people with unscientific anti-vaccination messages, what did you think would happen? Measles vaccination rates dropped and then, guess what, the U.S. started having measles outbreaks again over the past decade. Over the same time, polio vaccination rates have been dropping, as well, despite the vaccine having an excellent safety record and three doses of the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) being 99% effective at preventing paralytic polio, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lower vaccination rates has meant that the poliovirus would have more bodies to infect, sort of like offering the virus more cheap motel rooms to occupy and reproduce in, which is why the polio situation in New York is occurring now.
So what should you do? If you are an infant, congratulations on you ability to read. If you can write too, you may want to leave notes to your parents in between your burping to remind them to get you your recommended vaccines, including four doses of the IPV at 2 months, 4 months, 6 through 18 months, and 4 through 6 years of age. If you are older, check with your parents to see if they got you vaccinated. If they start talking about the “Deep State” and not wanting you to become a gigantic magnet where keys and anvils stick to you forehead, you may want to track down your old vaccination records from your school or doctor to verify for yourself whether you were indeed vaccinated as a young child.
If you either can’t verify this or know for sure that you didn’t get vaccinated against polio, you can always get three doses of the IPV as an adult. Once you’ve gotten the first dose, you have to wait one to two months to get the second dose, and then another six to 12 months to get the third dose. As an adult, the IPV is as easy as one, two, three.
If you indeed got the four-dose series as child, that in theory should give you lifetime protection. It’s in theory because while studies have suggested that protection can last for decades, they haven’t yet specifically determined whether such protection will last lifelong for everyone. So, yes, it is possible that your protection after getting vaccinated as a child may wane a bit at some point as an adult.
That’s the rationale behind the CDC’s current recommendation that as an adult who was vaccinated as a child you don’t need a adult booster unless you are “at increased risk of exposure to poliovirus.” Now, you may ask what exactly would put you at increased risk of exposure to the poliovirus? Certainly, if you plan on going snorkeling in New York’s wastewater where they recently found the poliovirus, you could be at increased risk. The same would apply if you have close contact with anyone who may be infected with the poliovirus or handle the poliovirus in any way. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get boosted if you work in healthcare or a laboratory where any jar, test tube, or other container happens to have the word “polio” on it.
The CDC also recommends getting a booster if “You are traveling to a country where the risk of getting polio is greater.” This includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, where polio remains endemic. Of course, nowadays you may ask whether New York or other parts of the U.S. represent a place “where the risk of getting polio is greater.” This may seem tricky since the actual number and distribution of currently infected people are not known. Health departments just don’t have the resources track such numbers. That’s what happens when the country invests so little in public health infrastructure.
Nonetheless, right now, there’s probably no need to get an adult booster unless you are a healthcare worker, a laboratory worker handling polio specimens, traveling to a country where polio is still more widespread that the U.S., or otherwise may be around someone who has a good chance of being infected. At the same time, there’s no real harm in getting an adult booster. Billions of people have received the IPV since it was first licensed in the U.S. on April 12, 1955. If you are on the fence about what your risk of exposure may actually be, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may tell you to go ahead and get the adult booster. This should then have you set for life against polio and offer you peace of mind. It would certainly only you to cross “decide whether to get the polio vaccine booster as an adult” off your 2022 list of things to do. And your 2023 one, your 2024 one, and so forth.
Life Sciences, Forbes – Healthcare