After New York's travel warning for Israel: What's polio and how do you contract it?

After new virus cases emerged in Israel, health officials urge New Yorkers 'to get fully immunized'; Health Ministry alerts new cases indicate hundreds probably carrying pathogen

Dr. Itay Gal|
The New York State Department of Health on Saturday posted a travel warning to U.S. nationals visiting Israel after the Health Ministry reported last week that two cases of polio were detected in the country.
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  • In the statement, the health officials called in New Yorkers traveling to the Jewish state “to get fully immunized” against polio and emphasized that "Polio is a highly contagious, life-threatening disease that affects the nervous system and can cause muscle weakness, paralysis, and even death... Polio immunization is safe, effective, and the most fundamental protection individuals can keep themselves and their children healthy and safe."
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    חיסון נגד פוליו
    חיסון נגד פוליו
    Oral Polio vaccine
    (Photo: Haim Hornstein)
    Back in 2022, a four-year-old girl from Jerusalem was diagnosed with the disease, which causes children's paralysis. Today the girl is still hospitalized and undergoing rehabilitation aimed at helping her fully function again.
    After her diagnosis, several other children who had contracted the virus were identified. Recently, four more children from Israel's northern region, who have not been immunized for the virus, were found to have been infected. Health officials warn that at least 175,000 children in Israel aren't vaccinated and risk contracting the disease.
    According to the Health Ministry, the country's latest case of polio was identified in the northern city of Safed. The ministry's Northern District conducted an epidemiological investigation, during which it was found that three additional children were positive for the virus but did not develop symptoms at this stage.
    Not much has changed in the treatment of the disease since the 1950s when it first struck Israel and left thousands of children disabled. Those who contracted polio as children are also at high risk of developing post-polio syndrome in adulthood — a severe condition that causes physical disability even years after infection.
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    שרון אלרעי פרייס בתדרוך עיתונאים בנושא חיסון נגד פוליו
    שרון אלרעי פרייס בתדרוך עיתונאים בנושא חיסון נגד פוליו
    Sharon Alroy-Preis
    (Photo: Motti Kimchi)
    Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry's head of Public Health Services, 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."
    What is polio?
    Polio is an infectious disease caused by an intestinal virus called poliovirus. It enters the body through the mouth and is excreted in feces.
    Who's at risk of contracting polio?
    Anyone who is not vaccinated, including infants who have not yet been vaccinated, as well as people with immunodeficiency and those who have been vaccinated in the past whose immunity may have weakened over time.
    How does polio infect a person?
    The virus enters the body through a process called "fecal-oral transmission" - that is, entering through the mouth of a person who has come into contact with a virus-contaminated matter on their food or hands.
    What are the symptoms?
    In more than 90% of cases, the virus will not cause any symptoms. In about 10% of cases, there may be mild symptoms, such as high fever, headaches, and muscle fatigue. In 1% of cases, the virus penetrates the nervous system and causes paralysis, usually in the legs. In even rarer cases, the virus can cause respiratory muscle paralysis and death.
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    Polio vaccination
    Polio vaccination
    Polio vaccination
    (Photo: Reuters)
    How can infection be prevented?
    The most effective way is through vaccination. Another important measure is washing your hands with water and soap for at least a 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 the event of an infection, a weakened live vaccine called OPV can be administered. OPV vaccines given not only protect the vaccinated person, but also prevents them from carrying the virus in their digestive system and infecting others.
    Should adults get vaccinated?
    No, as most adults in Israel have received the OPV live vaccine in the past, and so should be safe from being infected or infecting others.
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