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What is polio and where has the virus been found in London?

A national incident has been declared over new polio traces in sewage

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

You might have heard mutterings of a ‘new virus’ in town. Yesterday, a national incident was declared after traces of the polio virus were found in London sewage, for the first time since 1984. But don’t sell your festival tickets and stock up on the loo roll just yet. No actual cases of polio have been reported so far and the overall risk to the public is classified as ‘low’.

What exactly is polio? 

Poliomyelitis is a serious but rare disease which can affect the limbs and the nervous and respiratory systems. Most people with polio won’t have any symptoms and will fight off the infection, but some people do experience a flu-like illness. In very rare cases, it can be disabling and even life-threatening. 

There were major outbreaks of the disease in the UK in the 1940s and 1950, before the introduction of a vaccine in 1955. Now, the polio vaccine is given as part of the ‘six-in-one’ jab to babies over three doses, followed by boosters. 

How was the virus detected and where?

Traces of polio were first found in February in waste at Beckton Sewage Works, which is routinely tested by the World Health Organisation’s Global Specialised Polio Laboratory every two weeks, to check for various diseases. The virus was also detected in April, and more recently. 

Polio has officially been eradicated in this country. It is thought that the current virus has been imported via the faeces of a person who recently arrived in the UK. Six boroughs, thought to be in north and east London, are under investigation for the virus.

Should I be worried?

Don’t panic. According to health officials, the current risk of the virus spreading is ‘low’. Polio can be prevented with vaccination, meaning unvaccinated children and teenagers are most at risk.

To protect your children, check their vaccine records to see if they’ve had all three doses as a baby, in addition to the two boosters given aged three and four months and aged 14. Contact your GP if they’ve not been fully vaccinated. 

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms will usually pass within a week without any medical intervention. They can include: high temperature of more than 38C, headache, sore throat, aching muscles, and feeling or being sick. 

In very rare cases (between one in 100 to one in 1,000 infections) the virus will attack the nerves in the spine and base of the brain, which can cause paralysis.

Check out the NHS website for more information. 

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