What is poliomyelitis and how do you get it?

The New York State Department of Health released on Saturday a travel warning to US nationals visiting Israel after the Health Ministry reported last week that two cases of polio have been detected in the country.

In the statement, health officials called on New Yorkers traveling to the Jewish state to “get fully vaccinated” against polio and stressed that “polio is a highly contagious, life-threatening disease that affects the nervous system and can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, and even death… Polio vaccination is safe, effective, and the most basic protection individuals can keep themselves and their children healthy and safe.”

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Oral poliomyelitis vaccine

(Photo: Haim Hornstein)

In 2022, a four-year-old girl from Jerusalem was diagnosed with the disease, which causes paralysis in children. Today, the young girl is still hospitalized and is undergoing rehabilitation aimed at helping her to function fully again.

After his diagnosis, several other children who had contracted the virus were identified. Recently, four more children from the northern region of Israel, who have not been vaccinated against the virus, have been infected. Health officials warn that at least 175,000 children in Israel are unvaccinated and at risk of contracting the disease.

According to the Ministry of Health, the country’s latest polio case has been identified in the northern city of Safed. The ministry’s Northern District conducted an epidemiological investigation, during which three additional children were found to be positive for the virus but did not develop symptoms at this stage.

Little has changed in the treatment of the disease since the 1950s, when it first hit Israel and left thousands of children disabled. Those who contracted poliomyelitis as children are also at high risk of developing post-polio syndrome in adulthood – a serious illness that results in physical disability even years after infection.

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Sharon Elrai Price at a press briefing on polio vaccinationSharon Elrai Price at a press briefing on polio vaccination

Sharon Alroy Award

(Photo: Motti Kimchi)

Dr Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Department of Health, said last week: “A case of clinical paralysis is a red flag that tells us that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people carrying the virus and makes it clear that polio is out of control in Israel.”

Poliomyelitis is an infectious disease caused by an intestinal virus called poliovirus. It enters the body through the mouth and is excreted in feces.

Who is at risk of contracting poliomyelitis?

Anyone who has not been vaccinated, including infants who have not yet been vaccinated, as well as immunocompromised people and those who have been vaccinated in the past whose immunity may have waned over time.

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How does poliomyelitis infect a person?

The virus enters the body through a process called “fecal-oral transmission”, i.e. it enters through the mouth of a person who has come into contact with material contaminated with the virus on their food or his hands.

In more than 90% of cases, the virus will cause no symptoms. In about 10% of cases, there may be mild symptoms, such as high fever, headache, and muscle fatigue. In 1% of cases, the virus enters the nervous system and causes paralysis, usually in the legs. In even rarer cases, the virus can cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles and death.

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Poliomyelitis Vaccination Poliomyelitis Vaccination

Poliomyelitis Vaccination

(Photo: Reuters)

How to prevent infection?

The most effective way is vaccination. Another important step is to wash your hands with soap and water for at least one minute after leaving the bathroom, touching food, and changing a diaper.

What polio vaccines are available in Israel?

Two types of vaccines exist. The first is the IPV-inactivated vaccine. In case of infection, a weakened live vaccine called OPV can be given. The OPV vaccines given not only protect the vaccinated person, but also prevent them from carrying the virus through their digestive system and infecting others.

Should adults be vaccinated?

No, because most adults in Israel have received the live OPV vaccine in the past and should therefore be safe from becoming infected or infecting others.

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