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New York, worried about the reappearance of the polio virus

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When she learned weeks ago that the first case of polio in almost ten years had been recorded in the United States, that of a young New Yorker who was left paralyzed, Brittany Strickland trembled with “fear.”

“It’s terrifying. We didn’t think it would happen here,” said this 33-year-old woman, interviewed by AFP in Pomona, a town in New York’s Rockland county, 50 kilometers north of Manhattan.

“My mother was against vaccines and I realized that as a child I had not been vaccinated against polio,” confesses this designer who has just received her first dose against a virus that had practically disappeared.

In mid-August, New York health authorities warned that this highly contagious disease, which is transmitted through feces, secretions from the nose and throat, or by drinking contaminated water, had been detected in sewage.

A “worrying but not surprising” discovery, according to the authorities, who believe that “the virus is probably circulating locally” and that New Yorkers who have not yet been vaccinated should do so as soon as possible.

In mid-July, the first confirmed case of polio was reported in Rockland County, the first in the United States since 2013.

– 60% of children vaccinated –

In New York City, 86% of children ages six months to five years have received three doses of the vaccine, meaning the remaining 14% are not fully protected.

In Rockland County, only 60% of two-year-olds are vaccinated, compared to 79% in New York state as a whole and 92% nationwide, according to health officials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they were “concerned” and sent experts to New York state this summer to improve detection and vaccination, as it is a disease that can have “devastating and irreversible consequences “.

Poliomyelitis, which mainly affects the youngest and causes paralysis, is practically eradicated in the world, with the exception of poor countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the United States – where a president, Franklin Roosevelt, contracted it in 1921, at the age of 39 – the number of infections fell in the late 1950s (15,000 cases of paralysis per year at that time), thanks to a first vaccine .

– The dangers of the oral vaccine –

The last natural infection in the country dates back to 1979.

But health authorities know that, in rare cases (2% to 4% of a million vaccinated children), unvaccinated people could have been contaminated by others who received the vaccine orally.

This ampoule vaccine has been banned in the United States since 2000, but the World Health Organization revealed in June that a variant of the poliovirus derived from oral vaccines had been detected in London sewage.

The analysis of the Rockland case also suggests that the young New Yorker’s infection would come from a person vaccinated orally.

The oral vaccine replicates in the gut and can be transmitted through sewage containing fecal matter.

Less virulent than the natural virus, this variant can nevertheless cause severe symptoms, such as paralysis of the extremities.

And since the Rockland patient has not traveled outside the country, New York state officials believe the illness was spread locally, in the county.

– Orthodox Jews –

A large Orthodox Jewish community resides in this quiet, green, tree-lined residential suburb.

According to local publications, the Rockland patient is an Orthodox Jewish American in his twenties.

As communicator Shoshana Bernstein acknowledges, his community is traditionally averse to vaccines, like “any isolated and closed group.”

In a public letter, a dozen rabbis urged Jews to get vaccinated, a message Bernstein shares and tries to replicate.

For this, she seeks to rely on “the oldest Jews”, who remember the polio of the 1950s and can convince recalcitrant young people.

More pessimistically, New York University virologist John Dennehy, who thought polio was “on the verge of extinction,” now fears that the Rockland case is “the tip of the iceberg.”

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