Polio emerged as a public-health crisis in the middle decades of the last century, killing or paralyzing almost 25,000 people in the United States, most of them children, in 1952, its worst year. But after a massive research effort, the first vaccine arrived in 1955. Polio became virtually non-existent in the U.S. for decades – until last month.
One unvaccinated man has been paralyzed by the virus, according to New York Public Health officials. Waste-water analysis has it present in two counties.
“For every one case of paralytic polio observed, there may be hundreds of other people infected,” said State Health Commissioner Mary Bassett. “Coupled with the latest waste-water findings, the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of much greater potential spread.”
Officials blame low levels of vaccination against polio in some communities for the outbreak.
Polio is highly contagious. Though most people infected with the virus remain asymptomatic, about one in 200 becomes paralyzed, with children at higher risk than adults. Between 5 and 15 per cent of those who become ill die from the disease.
This is the price we pay for the growing vaccine hesitancy in Western societies. Long-banished diseases return. Once-dormant viruses spread. People become paralyzed. People may die.
Pierre Poilievre, who is likely to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates, going so far as to introduce a private-member’s bill that would prohibit them at the federal level. He has yet to explain how he can reconcile that position with the public harm such a policy could cause.
Vaccine hesitancy was deeply entrenched in American society even before the arrival of COVID-19. According to one study, almost a quarter of American parents were reluctant to have their children vaccinated before the pandemic. Other data suggested that only four in 10 American children were fully vaccinated at 24 months.
COVID-19 has made things worse, partly as a result of lockdowns, partly as a result of all the misinformation floating around, much of it ideologically driven.
The Michigan Academy of Family Physicians sounded the alarm this week over steadily declining levels of immunization among children in that state, citing a 6-per-cent decrease among toddlers over the past two years.
“The dropping rate of childhood immunizations is a growing concern that threatens the health of infants, children, teens, adults, families and our state as a whole,” said Glenn Dregansky, the academy’s president. Children are at increased risk of everything from polio to whooping cough, COVID-19, measles and more.
The United States is not alone in this crisis. The World Health Organization declared in 2019, before the onset of the pandemic, that vaccine hesitancy was one of the top 10 threats to global public health.
With the arrival of COVID-19 and of vaccines to fight it, hesitancy increased. We saw the fruits of that in the occupation of downtown Ottawa and border checkpoints by protesters last winter.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, are we about to see a resurgence of long-suppressed diseases brought on by opposition to vaccines?
In the case of polio, at least, there are no signs the virus has crossed the border.
Anne Génier, a spokeswoman for Health Canada, told me in an e-mail exchange that the department is aware of the confirmed polio case in New York.
“While the general risk to the Canadian public from polio remains low, these international cases are a good reminder to stay up to date with vaccinations, even for rare vaccine-preventable diseases,” she said.
It would be tragic if, in Canada and elsewhere, vaccine hesitancy generated by the pandemic led to an increase in dangerous and preventable childhood diseases.
Everyone in a position of public responsibility must lead the way in educating parents about the need to vaccinate their children. That includes the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said Mr. Poilievre opposed vaccine mandates and his private member’s bill would prohibit vaccine mandates at the federal level. In fact, he opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates and his private member’s bill would prohibit them at the federal level.
For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.