All children in London from one to nine years of age are to be offered polio vaccines after samples of the poliovirus were discovered in the sewage of eight London boroughs.
Testing carried by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) found samples in sewage from the Beckton sewage treatment network this spring.
Since then they have expanded their testing across London and found polio in 116 isolates from 19 sewage samples from sewage in Barnet, Brent, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, and Waltham Forest.
The virus is likely to have been shed in the faeces of people who have recently been vaccinated in a country which uses the oral polio vaccine, which is no longer used in the UK, and passed on to a small number of people.
Now the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised that a targeted inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) booster dose should be offered to all children between the ages of one and nine in all London boroughs — nearly one million children.
Health bosses stressed there have not been any confirmed cases of polio and the risk to the wider population is low.
However they said that it is clear the virus has spread within the community and urged families to make sure their polio vaccines are up to date.
“No cases of polio have been reported and for the majority of the population, who are fully vaccinated, the risk is low,” said Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant Epidemiologist at UKHSA
“But we know the areas in London where the poliovirus is being transmitted have some of the lowest vaccination rates. This is why the virus is spreading in these communities and puts those residents not fully vaccinated at greater risk.”
She said in rare cases the illness can cause paralysis but the risk is low because nationally most people have been vaccinated.
“It is vital parents ensure their children are fully vaccinated for their age. Following JCVI advice all children aged one to nine years in London need to have a dose of polio vaccine now — whether it’s an extra booster dose or just to catch up with their routine vaccinations. It will ensure a high level of protection from paralysis. This may also help stop the virus spreading further,” she said.
Vaccination rates in London vary between boroughs but childhood vaccination uptake is lower than the rest of the country.
There will also be a childhood vaccination catch up campaign across London.
As well as making sure their children have been vaccinated people are urged to practice good hand hygiene as polio can be spread orally from faeces.
Families should wait for an invite from their their GP to get their children boosted — and the vaccination programme will start in the eight boroughs where samples have been found and vaccination rates are low.
“While the majority of Londoners are protected from polio, the NHS will shortly be contacting parents of eligible children aged one to nine years old to offer them a top-up dose to ensure they have maximum protection from the virus,” said Jane Clegg, NHS London’s chief nurse.
“We are already reaching out to parents and carers of children who aren’t up to date with their routine vaccinations, who can book a catch-up appointment with their GP surgery now and for anyone not sure of their child’s vaccination status, they can check their Red Book.”
Testing of sewage is being extended to a further 15 sites across London and there are plans to take samples from 10 to 15 other places in the UK.
The last case of polio in the UK was discovered in 1984 and Europe was declared polio free in 2003.
Polio is caused by a virus that spreads easily from person to person mainly from faeces and can be spread by poor hand hygiene if someone infected with polio does not wash their hands after using the toilet and touches food or water used by others. It can also be spread less commonly through coughing and sneezing. In rare cases it can infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis.
Most people with polio will fight off the infection without even realising they were infected and will not know they have symptoms. And a small number will have flu-like illness three to 21 days after they’re infected.