With Likely Polio Circulation in New York, California Health Experts Urge Vaccination

Polio is highly infectious, and while most who get it won't have visible symptoms, a small number of cases can lead to paralysis or even death.

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Concern continues to spread over what health officials say is "likely local circulation" of the virus that causes paralytic polio in New York.

This week, health officials confirmed the virus was detected in wastewater in New York City. This comes after the virus had been detected in other parts of the state in month's prior and after one New Yorker was found to have paralytic polio in July.

California health experts who spoke with NBC Bay Area said that while this news from New York is not cause for panic, it is a reminder of the importance of vaccination.

Polio is highly infectious, and while most who get it won't have visible symptoms, a small number of cases can lead to paralysis or even death.

Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UCSF, said he remembers waiting in line with his parents to get the polio vaccine in the 1960's. Prior to widespread vaccine access, he explained that the spread of polio was frightening for many Americans.

"We’re talking iron lungs, ventilators, permanent defects-- people were scared out of their minds about It at the time and appropriately so, so when the vaccines first became available…there was a mad rush to get these," he explained.

But today, with the prevalence of polio vaccinations, Rutherford doesn't think polio infection is something most people should be worrying about.

That said, Rutherford emphasized: "if you haven’t been vaccinated, you should be vaccinated against polio."

The CDC recommends kids get four doses of the polio vaccine, with the first one at two-months-old.

You likely won't remember if you were vaccinated against polio, but Rutherford has a general rule of thumb:

"If you’re born after 1952 you more than likely got the polio vaccine and are immune, if you are born before, say the early 50’s maybe or maybe not," he said.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UC Davis Children's Hospital said that if you can't find your vaccination records, your memory of vaccinations as a kid may help you.

"If people received routine vaccinations in childhood, and they remember that, they almost for sure received polio vaccine,” Blumberg said, noting that the polio vaccine has been part of routine vaccinations since the late 1950's.

"If they remember that [as a child] they didn’t get any vaccines or their parents didn’t want them to get vaccines, then it's possible that they weren’t vaccinated against polio," Blumberg noted. "And with very little polio circulation, it's possible they have no immunity, and they might be at risk for infection."

In California, polio vaccination is one of the vaccines required to attend public schools, private schools, and childcare.

"It’s one of the best tolerated vaccines we have out there and its very effective," Blumberg said.

He added, "anybody that’s been vaccinated during childhood is likely immune for the rest of their life.”

Lauren Lewis of San Mateo thinks she got the polio vaccine as part of all the vaccines she had to get for school.

“I had to take my mom’s word for it too, but I know I had all my vaccinations, yeah,” Lewis said.

"I kind of take my parents' word for it that I’ve been vaccinated, but I’ve never actually checked,” said 19-year-old Varun Hegde in Foster City.

Hegde and his friends say they read about polio back in history class. They're now thinking about checking their vaccination records and doing more research about the virus.

The School of Engineering at Stanford University told NBC Bay Area Sunday that its research team is looking into monitoring polio in wastewater, though that hasn't happened yet.

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