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Polio: The age group that could risk ‘virulent virus’ in the UK – expert warning

Polio ‘could spread and mutate’ says Angus Dalgleish

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Amid a resurgence in polio, in response to which the UKHSA (United Kingdom Health Security Agency) declared a national incident, figures show fewer than half of 13- to 14-year-olds have received their polio vaccination booster.

Although the current form of polio spreading through the population poses a low risk to health, there are concerns the low vaccination numbers could allow the virus to gain a foothold.

Should this foothold be achieved, the virus will be allowed to continue circulating and spread.

Data shows the figures for polio boosters are particularly bad in the boroughs of Hillingdon and Brent where just 35 percent and 38 percent of 13-to-14 year olds have received their booster respectively.

Speaking about the health and danger to teenagers, University of East Anglia’s Professor Paul Hunter said: “Teenagers are not necessarily that well protected against infection, particularly if they’ve not had the booster.

“We’re not expecting it to give rise to paralytic cases over the coming days, but the longer it circulates the more opportunity there is for it to turn into a fully virulent polio virus again, which would be a disaster.”

As a result, health officials are calling for people to get their boosters as soon as possible to reduce the risk of the virus mutating into a more potent and deadlier form.

Polio was a major problem in the 20th Century before the development of the polio vaccine, however there is potential for confusion in discussion of the polio-vaccine derived virus.

What is the vaccine-derived polio virus?

When health experts talk about the vaccine derived polio virus, this does not mean the polio has been caused by a vaccine.

The vaccine given to children is known as the OPV vaccine.

Like other vaccines, it contains within it a weakened version of the virus to train the body to fight it.

The charity Polio Eradication explain further: “The vaccine virus can be spread from child to child. This helps spread the protection to other children, even those who are unvaccinated.

“However, when a large number of children are not vaccinated, and immunity levels are very low the vaccine virus can continue to spread from one unprotected child to another for a long period of time. As the virus continues to find unvaccinated children it undergoes small genetic changes.

On very rare occasions, this can cause the weakened virus to change into a form which can cause paralysis. These rare virus strains are called vaccine-derived polioviruses. If immunity is high, vaccine derived polio cannot arise.”

Vaccine derived polio arises when the vaccination rate and immunity levels are low; this is a situation facing parts of the UK with low polio vaccination rates.

The cause of the current outbreak in the UK is not yet known, but one theory is that someone arrived back from another country with polio, causing the transmission.

In a statement on Thursday, the UKHSA said: “Vaccine-derived poliovirus is rare and the risk to the public overall is extremely low.

“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.”

However, such as the fast moving nature of viral events, this could soon change in the weeks to come.

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