Is there about to be a polio virus outbreak in the UK?

·3-min read
Photo credit: andresr - Getty Images
Photo credit: andresr - Getty Images

So it turns out, 2022 really does seem to be the year for infectious diseases: with Covid-19 cases rising again, a reported outbreak of monkeypox and now, traces of the polio virus have been discovered in London. But is the new detected polio anything to worry about? And will wearing a face mask help protect you from polio?

Traces of polio were picked up following a routine inspection at the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, leading the UK Health Security Agency to declare a national incident. According to the NHS, it is easily spread through coughs or sneezes, and can be caught from food, water or being in contact with the poo of a person with the virus.

It's believed the traces of multiple closely-related polio viruses were found in the faecal samples between February and May, and currently it's thought that the spread is between individuals who are close to one another (e.g. family members) and that those people are now 'flushing out' the virus through their faeces.

One theory floated by experts is that the virus may have been shed by someone who was recently vaccinated against polio but in an area, such as Pakistan or Afghanistan, were the disease has not been entirely eradicated.

Photo credit: Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images
Photo credit: Catherine Falls Commercial - Getty Images

Although it might all sound a bit 'eek!', those in the know are keen to stress that as long as your polio vaccine is up to date, then generally there's nothing much to worry about (so make sure to check you've had a jab, and that any of your dependants - if you have any - are up to date with vaccines).

Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at the UKHSA, said [via Sky News]: "Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the risk to the public overall is extremely low. Vaccine-derived poliovirus has the potential to spread, particularly in communities where vaccine uptake is lower. 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.

Adding to this, Dr Saliba said, "Most of the UK population will be protected 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, though no cases have been reported or confirmed so far."

As for whether or not wearing a face mask can help protect you from polio, given that the virus can be spread by an infected person's cough or sneeze, yes - in theory - wearing a face mask could offer some protection. However, because the risk is currently deemed so low, there's no official guidance on doing so.

Next up: a plague of locusts?

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