With spooky season in full swing, polio is back from the dead after a reported case in Rockland County earlier this year, with evidence of the disease spreading through greater NYC-area wastewater soon after. Over email, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Ashwin Vasan answered questions about the resurgence of the life-threatening virus—and it’s a personal matter.

“I know firsthand how polio robs people of their lives,” he said. “My father’s older sister was an aspiring doctor when she died of the disease in India in the 1950s. My father’s younger brother is a polio survivor and his daily life is a reminder of the effects of the disease. He is paralyzed on one side of his lower body. That was not my reality since I was vaccinated against the virus as a baby.”

Vasan urges parents to get children vaccinated ASAP. He says the city is prioritizing getting kids under 5 their shots “without delay.” It’s typically a four shot process starting from a newborn’s early months. Chances are grownups are good, as the vaccination is mandated for schools in New York as well as across the country. But those unsure should talk to a doctor. 

There are city-run clinics where New Yorkers can get themselves and loved ones a shot. Those under four can get the vaccine for low-to-no cost at an immunization clinic at the Fort Greene Health Center. 

A myriad of reasons are leading to a quiet return of polio.

“We are seeing polio reappear in countries that we thought had eradicated it [due to] the combined effect of global under-vaccination that was created by a combination of mistrust and misinformation, amplified by social media; poor implementation of vaccination programs in other parts of the world; lack of access in conflict zones, insufficient funding, and work suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Vasan.

According to the CDC, the vaccine is 99-100% effective against polio after three doses. The lone person to contract polio this year in New York was unvaccinated. 

Last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared an emergency over polio in hopes of reaching the unvaccinated and under-vaccinated. Her executive order expanded vaccine administration permissions to EMS workers, midwives and pharmacists. According to Hochul’s office, polio was declared eliminated in the United States back in 1979.

“People are leading safer lives because of the polio vaccine and other important vaccinations and it’s more important than ever to renew confidence in one of the greatest marvels of human ingenuity and public health: vaccines,” said Vasan. “Please get vaccinated today.”

Polio vaccine appointments can be made on https://vaccinefinder.nyc.gov.

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1

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