Polio Returns: This is what “american exceptionalism” gets you

As I’m sure those paying attention know, there is an outbreak of polio in New York state.

New York polio case is the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ hundreds of others could be infected, health official says

Hundreds could have polio after an adult in the New York City metro area caught the virus and suffered paralysis last month, the state’s top health official said this week.

New York state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett warned that the confirmed polio case in an unvaccinated adult, coupled with the detection of the virus in sewage outside the nation’s largest city, could indicate a bigger outbreak is underway.

“Based on earlier polio outbreaks, New Yorkers should know that for every one case of paralytic polio observed, there may be hundreds of other people infected,” Bassett said. “Coupled with the latest wastewater findings, the department is treating the single case of polio as just the tip of the iceberg of much greater potential spread.”

The New York State Department of Health issued a bulletin (Urging Immunization, State Department of Health Updates New Yorkers On Polio Detected In New York State) on the need to get vaccinated.

The question is, if polio was “eradicated” in the US, how did it get into the country? According to the US’s CDC website (New Vaccination Criteria for U.S. Immigration), foreigners entering the US are required (with proof) to be vaccinated against these diseases:

  • Mumps
  • Measles
  • Rubella
  • Polio
  • Tetanus and diphtheria
  • Pertussis
  • Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Rotavirus
  • Meningococcal disease
  • Varicella
  • Pneumococcal disease
  • Seasonal influenza

The US’s CDC “recommends” americans get a polio vaccine before travelling abroad, but the page does not say it is required unless the destination country requires it.  And is it even enforced?  I’m absolutely not an expert, but I’d say it’s possible or even likely that an unvaccinated US citizen travelling abroad contracted it and brought it back to the US.  If that’s the case, then that means if americans were vaccinated, this wouldn’t have happened.

Back in 2001, I was required to get vaccinations and boosters for many diseases before I would be granted permission to travel to South Korea. I have travelled to Thailand twice, and I was told both times, “you don’t need to get shots or boosters if you’re staying in urban areas”. My response was, “so what, their citizens could be travelling around the country”, so I didn’t take chances.

Why isn’t vaccination required in the US for travel abroad?  Because “freedumb” – from responsibility, no doubt.  And as I suggested in the past, xenophobia and a sense of “superiority” may be part of the objection to being vaccinated.  Fox Nuisance and other rightwing media spent years spewing the hate propaganda of “immigrants spreading diseases”, the unspoken inference and corollary to which is, “foreigners are dirty, americans are clean”.

That was the mindset that allowed COVID-19 to spread, and now it may be happening with polio.

Vanishing vaccinations: why are so many Americans opting out of vaccinating their children?


Vaccinations against life-threatening diseases are one of the greatest public health achievements in history. Literally millions of premature deaths have been prevented, and countless more children have been saved from disfiguring illness. While vaccinations carry unavoidable risks, the medical, social and economic benefits they confer have led all fifty states to enact compulsory childhood vaccination laws to stop the spread of preventable diseases. Today, however, vaccines are becoming a victim of their success–many individuals have never witnessed the debilitating diseases that vaccines protect against, allowing complacency toward immunization requirements to build. Antivaccination sentiment is growing fast in the United States, in large part due to the controversial and hotly disputed link between immunizations and autism. The internet worsens fears regarding vaccination safety, as at least a dozen websites publish alarming information about the risks of vaccines. Increasing numbers of parents are refusing immunizations for their children and seeking legally sanctioned exemptions instead, apparently fearing vaccines more than the underlying diseases that they protect against.  A variety of factors are at play: religious and philosophical beliefs, freedom and individualism, misinformation about risk, and overperception of risk. State legislatures and health departments now face a difficult challenge: respecting individual rights and freedoms while also safeguarding the public welfare.

This NPR item from May 2021 talks about the polio vaccine.  Despite laboratory mistakes in 1955 that sent out vaccines containing active polio, causing 40,000 children to contract it, public trust in scientists didn’t waver.  Compare that to today, and the ignorance about the miniscule number of deaths from COVID-19 vaccines (e.g. blood clots) against the 2% death rate of the unvaccinated.

Can’t Help Falling In Love With A Vaccine: How Polio Campaign Beat Vaccine Hesitancy

The mass inoculation of millions of American children against polio in 1955, like the vaccinations of millions of American adults against COVID-19 in 2021, was a triumph of science.

But the polio vaccine had overwhelming public acceptance, while stubborn pockets of vaccine hesitancy persist across the U.S. for the COVID-19 vaccine. Why the difference? One reason, historians say, is that in 1955, many Americans had an especially deep respect for science.

“If you had to pick a moment as the high point of respect for scientific discovery, it would have been then,” says David M. Oshinsky, a medical historian at New York University and the author of Polio: An American Story. “After World War II, you had antibiotics rolling off the production line for the first time. People believed infectious disease was [being] conquered. And then this amazing vaccine is announced. People couldn’t get it fast enough.”

Today, the unprecedented speed of the COVID-19 vaccines’ development, along with a flood of disinformation on the internet about all vaccines, has led to a lingering hesitancy among some Americans to receive the increasingly available COVID-19 shots.



  1. lanir says

    Additional information about this outbreak is available at the link below. A significant amount of my career has involved working with healthcare professionals but I’m not one myself, so I’ll just let the CDC do the explaining. It’s not a very long article so please do read all of it.


    If you wish additional information about polio vaccination this page is your resource for that.


  2. anat says

    I’m an immigrant to the US. The first time I was required to present proof of vaccination was when our family applied for green cards, after having been living here for a couple of years. A few years ago I had a work-related trip to China so I got some extra vaccines voluntarily. Nobody asked for proof of vaccination on either side.

  3. beholder says

    I’m absolutely not an expert, but I’d say it’s possible or even likely that an unvaccinated US citizen travelling abroad contracted it and brought it back to the US.

    One of the articles out there (I think it was this one [AP News]) said the poliovirus in his system was a strain originally derived from a vaccine; live polio vaccines aren’t used in the U.S., but are encountered elsewhere. Very likely, someone was being a model citizen and got their vaccine long before travelling to the U.S., and wouldn’t have spread it were it not for our outrageously high numbers of unvaccinated.

    Of course, we were so close to eradicating polio several years ago, and we probably would have if the CIA didn’t shit the bed and conduct a fake vaccination program in Pakistan for the purpose of finding Bin Laden by DNA-testing his relatives. Thank America’s ever-expanding military adventurism for Pakistan’s explosive and recalcitrant antivax movement; they believe, perhaps with good reason, that any organized vaccination campaign is a secret effort to kill them.

    • lochaber says

      everything Beholder said.

      I don’t have any sympathy for Bin Laden, but I’m mad that US politics and wargames got in the way of eradicating a devastating virus.

      And now, because of all the ridiculous trumpism and denialism, polio may make a comeback in the fucking wealthiest country on earth…

  4. invivoMark says

    Two comments.

    First, it may be just as likely that someone from the US who was fully vaccinated for polio traveled abroad and contracted the virus. All vaccines lose some of their effectiveness over time, and we do not recommend that adults who were vaccinated as children get booster shots for polio. Although the polio vaccines (both types) have robust longevity of protection, most studies measure that longevity in months, not years. A vaccinated adult may be able to contract the virus while traveling.

    Second, while our polio vaccination rates are certainly not as good as they should be (WHO puts the US around 92%), we’re about on par with countries like the UK (93%) and Germany (91%). The US is not exceptional here (pun intended).

    National vaccine coverage for polio: https://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.main.A831?lang=en