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"It is never too late to get caught up with a vaccine series."
That message from Dr. Gigi Chawla, vice president and chief of general pediatrics at Children's Minnesota, is sound medical advice for parents and students as the new school year looms. But it's especially timely this year with new viral enemies such as COVID-19 still circulating and an older foe, polio, surfacing in New York.
Fall surges regrettably have been a predictable part of the COVID pandemic. In addition, an unvaccinated New York resident has contracted polio. The virus has been detected in the city's wastewater, suggesting wider local circulation.
Immunization can protect against both of those diseases, as well as measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough and other pathogens. Multiple doses are often necessary for maximum protection and are required under state school immunization law (though exemptions exist).
Back-to-school preparations should include checking to see whether your child is missing a vaccine dose for any disease. The same advice applies to adults, Chawla said.
If there's a missing vaccine dose or doses, medical providers welcome parents' and patients' efforts to complete the recommended vaccine series. Polio's recent detection in the United States adds urgency to doing so.
"Vaccination is important for everyone," Chawla said.
The New York case has spotlighted polio, a disease the current generation of students and parents is blessedly unfamiliar with, thanks to widespread vaccination.
Historically, however, it's been one of the most feared childhood maladies. While most infected recover, "a smaller group of people will develop more serious symptoms that affect the brain and spinal cord," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The most severe outcome is paralysis, which can lead to lifelong disability or death. That's why polio's mention instantly conjures sepia-toned images of children using crutches, a wheelchair or an "iron lung machine."
Polio spreads easily, typically through the "fecal-oral" route, a polite way to say that poop from an infected person is ingested via unwashed hands or a contaminated object (such as a toy) put in the mouth.
Fortunately, the vaccine is highly effective. Two doses of the current vaccine are "90% effective or more against paralytic polio; three doses are 99% to 100% effective," the CDC says.
Polio shots are typically given in early childhood — birth through age 6. To learn more about the number of doses the Minnesota school immunization law requires, go to tinyurl.com/MNpolioinfo.
A booster isn't typically part of routine adult vaccinations, according to the CDC. Still, one lifetime booster may be recommended for those who completed the primary series but are considered at "higher risk of polio contact." This includes those who treat or work with someone who could be infected, those who travel to certain countries or people who work in a laboratory.
"It truly is one of the best vaccines that has been made. It continues to offer incredible protection and lifelong protection," Chawla said.
But again, it's essential to get all the recommended doses. Chawla has welcome news for those who have missed a shot in their primary polio series. There's no need to start the series over. "You just pick up where you left off," she said.
The CDC continues to urge those who haven't completed the initial vaccine series to do so "as soon as possible." That recommendation has not changed since polio's detection in New York.
About 85% of Minnesota children are immunized against polio, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). That's impressive, but the goal set by the federal "Healthy People 2030" initiative aims for 90%. There's still significant work to do.
Help is available from MDH for those who can't locate vaccine records. Its Minnesota Immunization Information Connection "combines a person's immunizations into a single record, even if they were given by different health care providers in the state."
Parents can securely access their records as well as records for their children. The information can be viewed online or as a PDF file. To learn more, go to tinyurl.com/MDHfindmyvaxrecord.