The virus that causes polio, which has not been detected in the United Kingdom for almost 40 years, looks to have made a comeback, according to sewage samples from the nation’s capital.
The UK Health Security Agency, or UKHSA, said the virus had likely been “imported” into London by someone who had been vaccinated overseas with a live form of the virus. The agency believes that person then spread the virus to close family members.
So far, it does not appear to have spread further than that.
The agency said parents should, however, make sure their children are fully immunized against the disease, which is highly infectious and that can invade the nervous system and, in rare cases, cause paralysis within hours.
Polio is, however, usually far less damaging and most people experience nothing more than a high temperature, tiredness, headaches, muscle pain, and vomiting.
While the disease can affect anyone who has not been vaccinated against it, it is most dangerous to children aged 3 and younger.
Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said people in the UK are routinely jabbed to protect against the virus.
“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’s health authorities have declared a national incident and informed the World Health Organization about the outbreak.
The UKHSA said the virus was detected in samples taken at the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, which processes waste water from an area of northern and eastern London that is home to around 4 million people.
The METRO newspaper reported on Thursday that an investigation has begun, with experts looking to track the source of the outbreak, so a targeted vaccination drive can begin.
Despite the disease’s rarity in the UK, children are routinely given the polio vaccine three times while babies, and again at age 3, and age 14. The National Health Service urged parents of children who are not up-to-date with their jabs to get in touch with their family doctor.
Jane Clegg, the NHS’s chief nurse in London, said the authorities will also proactively contact the parents of children who may not be fully jabbed.
“Parents can also check their child’s vaccination status in their red book, and people should contact their GP practice to book a vaccination should they or their child not be fully up to date,” she added.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Radio 4’s Today program he is not “particularly worried “about the disease’s detection because of the UK’s high vaccination rate.
In addition to vaccines, polio’s spread can be limited through handwashing after using the toilet, and before handling food.
The disease is rare throughout much of the world because of the success of vaccination programs and is currently only widespread in Pakistan and Afghanistan.