More on Polio & the Breakthrough Population

In a previous blog post, I pointed out that there is a case of polio in Rockland County, NY in the orthodox Jewish population. Additionally, Public Health officials have detected polio virus in the wastewater of Rockland County, Orange County and NYC . They suspect that there must be at least 100 asymptomatic patients in that population as well. Certain facts must be clarified regarding the previous blog post.

Prior to polio vaccination, the world was dealing with the wild polio virus . It was transmitted through the fecal oral route. Paralysis and life-threatening illness occurred in 1 out of 200 patients infected. Most individuals did not even know they had it.

With funding and support from the March of Dimes, Jonas Salk, MD , invented the polio vaccine in injectable form. If you received a polio injection you could not transmit the virus to the unvaccinated.

Several years later the oral Saban vaccine was developed. You took this live attenuated virus prep orally – usually on a sugar cube. Since the natural transmission of polio was by the fecal oral route, the Saban oral vaccine produced a better level of immunity but additionally led to shedding of the virus with the potential to infect unvaccinated patients. At the time this was considered advantageous leading to more immunized patients but, as rare symptomatic cases of polio developed from the vaccine, authorities switched back to an injectable vaccine in the USA. The rest of the world did not necessarily follow suit and continued to use the less expensive live attenuated oral vaccine.

The case in Rockland County is felt to be the result of patient exposure to someone shedding the polio virus from an oral vaccination overseas. If that individual had been vaccinated against polio, they would not have contracted the disease and be shedding virus to others.

In an interesting opinion article in the NY Times, Editorial Board Member Jean Interlandi forwards the argument that lack of vaccination is not a religious issue . She has worked extensively with the orthodox community promoting public health issues and believes it is the young mothers and women who need to be educated and encouraged to vaccinate their children, not the rabbi’s who lead the community.

Ms. Interlandi may be correct but local authorities and politicians have made it far too easy for this group of individuals to ignore public health recommendations and reintroduce measles and its complications, whooping cough and now polio. Offering a carrot rather than a stick may be her best advice but, in my opinion, using both options is long overdue.

Health officials agree that if you are vaccinated you are protected against this non wild form of the virus. The solution is to vaccinate the children of Rockland and Orange County against these once eradicated diseases and allow this religious minority to worship as they please if their actions do not bring risk to the rest of the general population. At this time there are no recommendations for polio boosters in adults, immunosuppressed or the elderly populations.

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Polio is Back

One case of polio with neurological complications has been detected in Rockland County , NY. The virus is now present in the wastewater of NYC , Rockland and Orange Counties. Public health authorities believe there are 100 or more cases in that area with symptoms not yet present but the infected shedding the virus.

The disease was detected in a population of ultra-orthodox Jewish residents who do not believe in vaccinations. Statistics released today show that less than 60% of the eligible children in those two counties have been vaccinated against polio. With the disease now being found in the wastewater of NYC, Public Health authorities are considering giving boosters to children ,the immunosuppressed and the elderly. Those decisions are pending.

I remember polio. My friend’s older siblings died from polio. My best friend’s older sister wore a brace on her leg and used a crutch to walk. My maternal grandmother’s best friend caught polio while pregnant. She survived it but we sat with her thirty something daughter born with no legs on the beach daily in the summers. We had crude elementary school level jokes about the disease. “Johnny i see you brought your father’s iron lung to school today for show and tell. What did he have to say about it?” Johnny answered, “ Uggggh”.

I remember the excitement when we received a notice from P.S. 253 that the NYC Public Health Department was going to vaccinate all elementary school children against polio. We lined up in the gym excited to be vaccinated with a shot in the arm. There was no discussion of long-term adverse effects of the vaccine. There was no talk about how effective the shot would be.

When my brother and I became ill that winter with fever and viral illness no one contemplated whether this was a breakthrough case of polio with no neurological consequences or death due to vaccination. We did not have the technology available to determine that anyway. We just knew we would not end up paralyzed, on an iron lung for life or die from polio.

As an adult I have spent years defending the right of religious groups to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes and communities. Isn’t that what America is supposed to be all about?

Growing up in a beachside residential community on the tip of Coney Island called Sea Gate, I witnessed this same community rent and purchase dilapidated multi dwelling structures and use them as summer retreats at the beach . I defended their rights to their privacy despite the fact that if I went out to wash and clean the car after sundown on Friday evening I would be verbally abused or even have objects thrown at me for disturbing their view of the Sabbath.

I still support their right to worship as they please, but not at the expense of violating reasonable public health vaccination recommendations which puts the general population at risk. Their community now has a voting bloc and financial strength to prevent the local enforcement of vaccination mandates. If G-D didn’t want humans to develop medications against dreaded diseases, then it would not have happened.

It’s long since overdue for public officials and health officials in NY City and State to charge these individuals with child abuse, throw them and any leaders who support them in jail and make it clear that if they want their rights to live and pray in peace in the community, they need to start thinking about more than just themselves.

Optimizing Disease Detection and Containment Through a Waste-Before-Case Approach

by Megan Diamond – Manager, Health Initiative, The Rockefeller Foundation & Aparna Keshaviah – Senior Statistician, Mathematica

When a new public health threat emerges – like the highly infectious Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – detecting the first case before there has been widespread community transmission can be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Yet wastewater testing is a tool optimized to do just that. People infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed the virus when they go to the bathroom – including asymptomatic people who may not even know they are infected. The sewers then act like large magnets, aggregating the virus particles found in feces into centralized locations where researchers and public health officials can take samples and detect the virus, sometimes before a clinical case emerges. In fact, over the past week, multiple cities in the United States were able to detect Omicron in the wastewater before a clinical case was identified.

As vaccinations plateau and testing declines, public health officials are looking for alternative means to passively collect data that provides real-time insights for decision-making. Wastewater testing does exactly that, at the fraction of the cost of clinical testing.

Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is not a new field. Decades of evidence have shown that WBE is an effective tool for detecting outbreaks of pathogens like poliovirus and typhoid, with the potential for much more. And although it has been used in several countries, including in the United States, to monitor for SARS-CoV-2, ongoing questions remain on how to best interpret and use data derived from wastewater for pandemic response.

For example, wastewater data is inherently messy, and more work is needed to reliably distinguish signal from noise in viral concentrations collected from wastewater to detect a rising threat. It’s also unclear how wastewater data should be synthesized with other local public health data—such as clinical case counts and reports of Covid-like symptoms—to provide officials with a more holistic measure of Covid-19 risk in their community. The potential of sequencing viral RNA in wastewater remains underexplored, too.

The creation of the Wastewater Action Group (WAG) – which includes leading researchers and public health officials in Atlanta (Emory University), Houston, Louisville, Tribal Nations (Arizona State University) and Tulsa  – is one of the ways that The Rockefeller Foundation and PPI are supporting cities across the US to translate wastewater data into action.  Together, this network of partners is refining wastewater sampling, testing, and sequencing protocols; developing metrics and strategies for wastewater-based risk communication; and expanding wastewater testing to underserved populations that are not connected to centralized wastewater treatment plants.

The impact of these efforts are being seen in real time:

  • In Houston, Texas, partners at the Houston Health Department and Rice University detected Omicron in the wastewater before a confirmed clinical case and subsequently sequenced positive samples from school children residing in the service areas of the wastewater treatment plan.
  • In Louisville, Kentucky, partners at the University of Louisville and Louisville Metro Dept. Public Health & Wellness detected Omicron in the wastewater before a confirmed case in Jefferson County. Through close collaboration with the State of Kentucky, they can now do targeted sequencing within the community.
  • In Tulsa, Oklahoma, partners at the Tulsa Health Department and University of Oklahoma saw an increase in influenza A virus concentration was detected in the wastewater, enabling quick communication to the public.

PPI recently met the growing need for rapid peer-to-peer learning by hosting an urgent meeting focused on wastewater sequencing in light of the emergence of Omicron. More than 30 wastewater testing leaders attended and since then, more than half have either reached out to someone they met on the call or adapted their response plans based on information shared during the session.

PPI is also dedicated to hearing from end users of public health data. Through a collaboration with Mathematica, The Rockefeller Foundation is fielding a nationwide survey among public health leaders.

The results of the survey could inform the development of decision-making tools for public health departments and help policymakers determine how they can best support wastewater surveillance across the country.

At present, no single data source provides a full picture of COVID-19. The most widely reported data—clinical case counts—overlook large swaths of the population that lack access to quality health care. As a result, the first signs of an outbreak are often detected weeks, if not months, after the emergence of a new threat. Wastewater testing is a way to fill this critical data gap.

The world can no longer wait for fragmented, delayed, and biased data. By supporting the development and scaling of wastewater-based epidemiologic tools and knowledge, PPI seeks to boost the capacity of public health officials to detect infectious disease outbreaks and prevent the next pandemic.

Free Health Screening – A Service to our Community’s Health

Last weekend I had the privilege of supervising University of Miami Miller School of Medicine students at a free public health screening in Pompano Beach, Florida.  The screening was sponsored by the medical school, with the assistance of community leaders, and held in a local public school. The program organization, recruitment of student and faculty volunteers and management of the program was undertaken and implemented by the students. It is one of several programs of this nature undertaken by these students in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County Florida.

Stations were set up to screen for vital signs, weight, body mass index, glucose and cholesterol. A women’s center with breast exam, cervical pap smears and dexa heel bone density tests was available. There was an ophthalmology station with physicians from Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. A dermatology section was available with fellows from the world class dermatology program at the University of Miami. Pediatric and neurology sections were available as well as mental health screening. The program was enhanced by the participation of the Broward County Health Department and numerous other community organizations.

After the patients rotated through each station they exited at a checkout area manned by students and faculty. The students organized all the data for the patient participants, explained what their exam findings meant and established mechanisms for the patients to receive follow-up care in the Public Health setting.

This was the fifth year I have participated as a voluntary faculty member. I noticed the patients were younger, sicker and presenting with more social and health problems than in previous years. Several times during the screenings, the fire rescue squad was called to transport individuals to the hospital because their initial entry into the health system detected a serious enough condition to require immediate hospitalization. The patients were proud, hard working American citizens of all races, colors and creeds who were devastated by the recession with loss of jobs and health insurance benefits.  For many, this screening was their first trip to the doctor in years. Although well received, this screening was the most rudimentary of safety nets available for this community from the health care field.

Some 225 patients were examined in an eight hour period. I was proud of the students for a job well done. After it was over I went home and took time to read the local newspaper. There was a front page article about how our new governor had just proposed a budget which cuts all funding for primary medical care at Public Health Facilities. I wondered how many of those patients we referred for follow-up to Public Health facilities would now have to wait until next year’s screening program to obtain it?

I wish those Tea Party and righteous cost cutting conservative politicians and our governor had spent the day interviewing, examining and counseling the patients I saw today. I wonder how they would react to a frightened fifteen year old hoping to get a pregnancy test and too poor to afford a store bought test?  I wonder what they would say to a 5th grade teacher who had lost her home to foreclosure and couldn’t afford to pay an ophthalmologist in the private setting to check her glaucoma. I wonder what Governor Scott and the Tea Party would say to a 50 year old former triathlon performer who lost his construction and landscape business during the recession, lost his health insurance, gained forty pounds due to the stress of life and was now unemployed, diabetic and hypertensive with no access to health care?

It’s easy to pontificate about the flaws of health care reform until you sit down with the sickest and most vulnerable and realize they are no different than you and I.