A national incident has been declared in the United Kingdom (UK) as the first sign of polio in the country in over 40 years has been detected in London’s sewer system.

The virus was detected during routine testing of sewage waste in London, prompting the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to inform the public. The sewage treatment plant where it was detected covers a population close to 4 million in the north and east of the capital.  

Health officials warned that the paralyzing virus could be spreading in Britain again and urged the public to make sure they vaccinate themselves and their children.

While the virus is usually mild for most people, manifesting as a fever-like cold with symptoms including headaches, a high temperature, vomiting and a stiff neck, while around 1 in 100 polio cases can infect the brain and spinal cord, leading to paralysis and sometimes breathing difficulties, which can be life threatening.

The paralysis is usually not permanent and muscle movement usually resumes after weeks, or in some a few months. 

It can be spread through poor hand hygiene or by an infecting individual coughing and sneezing.

Britan was declared polio-free by the World Health Organization in 2003, with the last “wild case” being detected in 1984, meaning this will be the first sign of the virus since the 1980’s, according to the government.

During the early 1950’s, before the vaccine, around 8,000 British citizens suffered with paralytic poliomyelitis. 

The virus was slowly eradicated in most countries in Europe and North America after a prolonged mass vaccination effort. Effective vaccinations for polio became available in the 1950’s and 60’s, and international governments encouraged all citizens to take the vaccination.  

This resulted in the eradication of the virus across most of the Western world, although it is still prominent in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and other African nations.

The USA has been polio free since the late 1970’s, and the national vaccination rate is around 82 percent.

Although the polio vaccine is a routine shot for British children, meaning most people are already protected against the virus there, there is a lower uptake in London, particularly among ethnic minority groups.

Consultant epidemiologist at the UKHSA Dr. Vaness Saliba, “The British public should check to see if they’d been vaccinated. On rare occasions, it can cause paralysis in people who are not fully vaccinated. So, if you or your child are not up to date with your polio vaccinations, it’s important you contact your GP to catch up or, if unsure, check your red book.”

Saliba continued, “Most of the UK population will be protect from vaccination in childhood, but in some communities with low vaccine coverage, individuals may remain at risk.”

“We are urgently investigating to better understand the extent of this transmission and the NHS has been asked to swiftly report any suspected cases to the UKHSA,” Saliba concluded.

According to the UKHSA, the virus could be spreading in a small, family community within London and further testing is taking place across the city’s sewage systems.

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