National incident declared after health officials find traces of polio

The UK is considered by the World Health Organization to be polio-free.

National incident declared after health officials find traces of polio virus in sewage in London iStock
The last case of wild polio contracted in the UK was confirmed in 1984.

Health officials are “urgently investigating” after polio was found in sewage in London.

The UK Heath Security Agency said the virus, which can cause paralysis in unvaccinated people, was discovered at the London Beckton Sewage Treatment Works.

Health bosses said the risk to the public was “extremely low” but urged people to check their vaccination status. Vaccine coverage for childhood vaccines has decreased nationally, public health officials said.

“Vaccine-derived poliovirus has the potential to spread, particularly in communities where vaccine uptake is lower,” said Dr Vanessa Saliba, from the UK Health Security Agency.

“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.

“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,” she said.

The UK is considered by the World Health Organization to be polio-free.

Health professionals across the country are being strongly encouraged to fully investigate and report any suspected cases of acute flaccid paralysis or acute flaccid myelitis (AFP/AFM) not explained by a non-infectious cause, as part of national surveillance for polio.

AFP and AFM are characterised by rapid onset of weakness of an individual’s extremities, often including weakness of the muscles of respiration and swallowing.

As part of routine surveillance, it is normal for one to three “vaccine-like” polioviruses to be detected each year in UK sewage samples but these have always been one-off findings that were not detected again.

These previous detections occurred when an individual vaccinated overseas with the live oral polio vaccine (OPV) returned or travelled to the UK and briefly ‘shed’ traces of the vaccine-like poliovirus in their faeces.

The virus has continued to evolve and is now classified as a “vaccine-derived” poliovirus type 2 (VDPV2), which on rare occasions can cause serious illness, such as paralysis, in people who are not fully vaccinated, the UKHSA said.

The detection of a VDPV2 suggests it is likely there has been some spread between closely-linked individuals in North and East London and that they are now shedding the type 2 poliovirus strain in their faeces.

The virus has only been detected in sewage samples and no associated cases of paralysis have been reported – but investigations will aim to establish if any community transmission is occurring.

The last case of wild polio contracted in the UK was confirmed in 1984. The UK was declared polio-free in 2003.

“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,” Dr Saliba said.