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The United Kingdom has declared a rare “national incident” after traces of the highly contagious polio virus were found in sewage in London, the government said.
Britain, like many developed nations, has been largely polio-free since the 1980s due to the high uptake of the vaccine. So far, no cases have been reported.
However, its health security agency and medical regulator said in a statement Wednesday that authorities had found traces of poliovirus in sewage samples collected from the London Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, as part of “routine surveillance.” The sewage treatment plant covers a population close to 4 million in the north and east of the capital.
“Investigations are underway after several closely-related viruses were found in sewage samples taken between February and May,” the statement said.
“Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the risk to the public overall is extremely low,” Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist at UK Health Security Agency, said in a statement.
The type 2 vaccine-derived poliovirus — as opposed to the wild or naturally occurring strain — is a weakened form of the live virus used in oral polio vaccines. Many countries, including the U.K. and United States have moved away from using the oral vaccine as it can spread to unvaccinated people. But it remains common in nations such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The vaccine-derived poliovirus detected in the U.K. “on rare occasions can cause serious illness, such as paralysis, in people who are not fully vaccinated,” the British health authorities said.
There is no cure, but vaccinations since the 1960s, mostly in childhood, have been a game changer allowing many countries to eradicate wild polio. The U.K. maintains vaccine coverage of more than 95 percent, the government said, largely through a routine childhood immunization program.
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