Anti-vaccine activists giddily celebrate as poliovirus spreads in NY

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr., heads up to a meeting at Trump Tower on January 10, 2017 in New York City.
Enlarge / Robert F. Kennedy Jr., heads up to a meeting at Trump Tower on January 10, 2017 in New York City.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to ramp up efforts to halt the spread of poliovirus in New York, anti-vaccine activists are celebrating dips in childhood vaccination rates, calling them a “COVID silver lining.”

On Tuesday, the CDC published new details on the case of paralytic polio in New York’s Rockland county that was first announced in mid-July. The case, which occurred in an unvaccinated, immune-competent young adult male, began in June. Among the report’s revelations is that the infection left the man with ongoing flaccid weakness in both legs.

As of August 10, officials had tested 260 wastewater samples in Rockland and nearby Orange county. Twenty-one of those 260 samples—8 percent—tested positive, with positive detections spanning samples collected in April, May, June, and July, the report notes. Separately, New York officials announced last Friday, August 12, that sewage samples in New York City had also tested positive.

Health officials have been pushing to boost vaccination rates since the case was first identified, organizing vaccination drives and awareness campaigns. In the US, the vast majority of people get three doses of inactivated polio vaccine before the age of 24 months. And those three doses are more than 99 percent effective at preventing paralytic polio. But the CDC report Tuesday provides a new, alarming detail behind the public vaccination push in Rockland: Some zip-codes within the county have polio vaccination rates in infants as low as 37 percent.

That’s an eye-popping rate even in a county known for low vaccination rates. The state had previously noted that Rockland’s county-wide polio vaccination rate for infants is currently 60 percent, down from 67 percent in July of 2020. That’s well below New York’s overall rate of about 79 percent, which is itself below the national average of the nearly 93 percent reported in 2017-2018 survey data on infant vaccinations.

Generally, vaccination rates have dipped slightly in the US amid the pandemic. A CDC report published in April of this year found that vaccination rates among kindergarteners fell by about 1 percent for the 2020-2021 school year compared with 2019-2020. Some of the dip is likely due to the fact that many people avoided non-urgent medical visits at the height of the coronavirus crisis—that includes children’s well visits, in which routine vaccinations are given. But, there’s also widespread concern among physicians and health experts that politically motivated attacks on COVID-19 vaccination have spilled over to other vaccines, leading parents to doubt routine, life-saving immunization. And anti-vaccine activists are celebrating.

Falsehoods and scare quotes

On Friday, the anti-vaccine organization Children’s Health Defense published an article calling the dip in vaccination a “COVID Silver Lining.” The site, run by prominent anti-vaccine activist and prolific peddler of dangerous misinformation Robert F. Kennedy, had falsely claimed previously that a vaccination dip in 2020 led to a dramatic reduction in deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. CDC data, however, indicates that the rate of SIDS actually increased slightly in 2020 compared with 2019, but has stayed relatively stable for several years.

In the article Friday, written by the site’s “staff,” the organization suggested New York health officials are fabricating the spread of polio, using scare quotes around “polio” and “vaccine-preventable.” Specifically, it accused health officials of “stoking worries about a resurgence of so-called ‘vaccine-preventable’ illnesses. Thus, following a single case of paralysis ascribed to ‘polio,’ New York State is busily trying to conjure up a polio outbreak.”

As Ars has reported before, finding a single polio case in New York suggests that hundreds if not thousands of others have been infected. “Low vaccination coverage in the patient’s county of residence indicates that the community is at risk for additional cases of paralytic polio,” the CDC’s report reads. “Even a single case of paralytic polio represents a public health emergency in the United States.” The report, led by Ruth Link-Gelles and the CDC’s 2022 US Poliovirus Response Team, is actively increasing surveillance efforts for nonparalytic polio cases, as well as boosting vaccination.

While the spread of polio in New York poses little risk to those who are vaccinated—which is the vast majority of the US population—experts fear that such outbreaks will become more and more common as anti-vaccine sentiments proliferate. So far this year, dozens of state legislatures have considered legislation to roll back childhood vaccination requirements.

This post has been updated to note that poliovirus was also detected in a sewage sample from April.