EDITORIAL: Wastewater tale

I REMEMBER WHEN I RECEIVED my polio vaccine. At least I think I do. It must have been in first or second grade and we were told to line up single file outside the nurse’s room and wait for our turn to get “the needle.” I survived; I didn’t cry. Baseball cards were a bigger deal.

For my parents I can only imagine the weight that was lifted by the vaccinations given to my sister and me. A few years earlier there had been an epidemic of poliomyelitis in the U.S. According to ProPublica, the non-profit online news service, that outbreak killed over 3,000 in this country and paralyzed another 20,000 or more. Kids then knew about iron lungs like kids today know about respirators. And then, in 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine began to be administered, and case rates of the illness “dropped by as much as 90%.” This scourge was eradicated worldwide…. but not entirely.

It’s a complex public health and scientific story and it starts with the development of a second vaccine that is given orally (no needle!). That made it easier and less expensive to vaccinate kids, a big advantage in poor countries. That second version is as effective as the first; if you’re vaccinated by either version you are protected from polio.

The difference between the vaccines is that the second, oral version uses a weakened polio virus as a component of the vaccine. When discarded or excreted, it is possible that this second type of vaccine could spread the virus to people who are not vaccinated. So the oral vaccine is no longer used in this country. But it is one possible explanation why an unvaccinated Rockland County man was recently diagnosed as paralyzed by the polio.

When discarded or excreted? However you define it, we’re talking about sewage. We really need to know what’s in our sewers so we can protect ourselves and our environment. We can also learn about upcoming threats based on what’s being discharged as wastewater, what is called wastewater surveillance. It works to alert epidemiologists to trends in the spread of infectious diseases, including Covid-19, for instance, and the Columbia County Health Department hopes to get some help from a Syracuse University wastewater surveillance project, which is selecting communities to monitor wastewater treatment.

County Health Director Jack Mabb said the county will continue to monitor wastewater in Hudson for Covid and hopes to add other marker substances including, he hopes, opioid use. And now polio is “under discussion” as a virus to monitor.

The county could use some help. The state Department of Health publishes a list of each county’s polio vaccination rate, the percent of all children18 years and younger who have received their polio shots. Columbia, at 74.8%, is among the lower scoring counties, even lower than the figure for the whole state, which is 78.9%.

If all this is too much science, just remind yourself that vaccines can produce miracles but only if the public gets vaccinated. Yes, there are inequities: manufacturers can sometimes make huge profits if vaccines are effective but they should also share the formulas that taxpayers have subsidized. But for all that, vaccines are powerful tools that save millions of lives. The people who urge us to avoid vaccines have nothing to offer in return, nothing but ignorance and false choices.

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