GPs will be in touch with parents to offer the vaccines (photo Duncan C via Creative Commons)

Nearly one million children in London are to get polio vaccines after the virus was discovered in the sewage in eight northeast London boroughs.

Heath experts discovered the virus in samples from the network leading to Beckton treatment plant this spring. Since then they have expanded their testing across London and found polio in samples from sewage in Barnet,  Brent, Camden, Enfield, Hackney,  Haringey, Islington and Waltham Forest.

Now the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is “urgently” offering polio booster doses to 900,000 children aged between one and nine across London to boost protection.

Polio is caused by a virus that spreads easily from person to person, mainly from faeces. It can be spread if someone infected with polio does not wash their hands after using the toilet and touches food or water used by others. Less commonly, it can also be spread less commonly through coughing and sneezing. In rare cases it can  infect a person’s spinal cord, causing paralysis.

Most people with polio will fight off the infection without even realising they were infected and will not know that they have had symptoms. A small number will have a flu-like illness three to 21 days after infection.

Health bosses stressed there had not been any confirmed cases of polio and the risk to the wider population was low. The last case of polio in the UK was discovered in 1984 and Europe was declared polio-free in 2003.

However they said that it was clear that the virus had spread within the community and urged families to make sure their polio vaccines are up to date.

Families should wait for an invite from their their GP to get their children boosted. The vaccination programme will start in the eight boroughs where samples have been found and vaccination rates are low.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said: “No cases of polio have been reported and for the majority of the population, who are fully vaccinated, the risk is low. But we know the areas in London where the poliovirus is being transmitted have some of the lowest vaccination rates. This is why the virus is spreading in these communities and puts those residents not fully vaccinated at greater risk.”

She said in rare cases the illness can cause paralysis, but the risk is low because most people in Britain have been vaccinated.

Dr Saliba said: “It is vital parents ensure their children are fully vaccinated for their age. Following JCVI advice all children aged one to nine years in London need to have a dose of polio vaccine now – whether it’s an extra booster dose or just to catch up with their routine vaccinations. It will ensure a high level of protection from paralysis. This may also help stop the virus spreading further.”

Testing is being extended to a further 15 sites across London and there are plans to take samples from other places in the UK.

As well as making sure their children have been vaccinated, people have urged to practice good hand hygiene.

London’s chief nurse Jane Clegg said:  “While the majority of Londoners are protected from polio, the NHS will shortly be contacting parents of eligible children aged one to nine years old to offer them a top-up dose to ensure they have maximum protection from the virus.

“We are already reaching out to parents and carers of children who aren’t up to date with their routine vaccinations, who can book a catch-up appointment with their GP surgery now and for anyone not sure of their child’s vaccination status, they can check their Red Book.”

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Julia Gregory is the Local Democracy Reporter for Hackney, Camden and Islington, based at the Hackney Citizen. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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