Polio vaccine will be offered to London children after virus found in sewers

·5 min read
Polio vaccine to be offered to all under-9s children in London after virus spotted in sewers
Polio vaccine to be offered to all under-9s children in London after virus spotted in sewers

All children aged between one and nine in London are to be offered a polio booster vaccine in the next four weeks, health officials have said.

Parents have been told to wait until they are approached by the NHS before taking their children to get a jab. GP surgeries will give out the majority of doses.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has now seen the polio virus 116 times in 19 sewage samples across London between February and July, and is increasing detection efforts.

Most are harmless forms of the virus from people who have recently had a polio vaccination, but some have been identified as “vaccine derived poliovirus (VDPV2)”.

VDPV2 is when the virus in the vaccine replicates, mutates and behaves more like the wild form of the disease, which can cause paralysis.

There are no known cases of polio despite the findings, and health officials are unable to say how many people are likely to have been infected without knowing. They insist the risk to the wider population is low.

‘Virus spreading in Britain for first time in 40 years’

The early symptoms of the virus are cold-like, with a fever, headache and fatigue. However, if a person’s immune system does not flush out the virus, it can lead to neurological symptoms, with between one in 100 and one in 1,000 patients suffering paralysis.

No humans have yet tested positive for the disease, and doctors across the capital have been given refreshers on how to identify, test for, and care for potential polio patients.

According to the latest available data from the Office for National Statistics, there are around one million children aged between one and nine in London who are likely to be eligible for the booster.

Britain was proclaimed polio-free in 2003, with the last wild case detected in 1984, but now it has been found in eight London boroughs, with evidence that the virus is spreading in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

These boroughs – Barnet, Brent, Camden, Enfield, Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest – will be where the polio booster campaign will start.

UKHSA experts believe the virus is likely to have spread wider than these areas, however, and is not simply swirling around in a close network of individuals.

The World Health Organisation has set a benchmark of 95 per cent of children being vaccinated in order to keep polio at bay, but London lags behind this figure by a significant margin.

Eighty-seven per cent of one-year-old children in London have had their first dose, with Hackney, one of the boroughs with a positive sample, having the lowest total at 61 per cent. For the booster jab, the average figure drops to less than three-quarters.

Children wait to be injected against polio at a clinic in Hendon, north London, in 1956 - Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Children wait to be injected against polio at a clinic in Hendon, north London, in 1956 - Monty Fresco Jnr/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The first positive sample of polio is likely to come from a person who received an older version of the vaccine, which contains live polio and replicates in the gut before being excreted in the faeces.

This is common and not normally of concern. However, health officials have seen signs of it mutating, which indicates that it is circulating between people.

The Joint Committee for Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) has now recommended that the modern form of the vaccine – which has been used in the UK since 2004 and includes an inactivated form of the pathogen – is to be offered to under-10s over the next four weeks.

All children will be offered a booster, irrespective of whether they are behind on their schedule of vaccinations or up to date, with the idea being to raise immunity as quickly as possible.

To a vaccinated person, the risk of paralysis is negligible, experts said, and the increase in population immunity will also lower the risk to the wider community.

‘Vaccines offer best defence to children’

Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA said: “No cases of polio have been reported, and for the majority of the population, who are fully vaccinated, the risk is low.

“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.”

Jane Clegg, the chief nurse for the NHS in London, said: “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.

“For anyone not sure of their child’s vaccination status, they can check their ‘red book’.

Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, sought to reassure parents that there have so far been no cases of polio, saying: “Nobody has been diagnosed with the virus, and the risk to the wider population is low.

“Vaccines offer the best defence to children and those around them, so I would encourage families to ensure they are up to date with their routine jabs, and to come forward for the polio booster as soon as they are contacted by the NHS.”