Resurgence of Polio in America a Reminder that Post-COVID Biosecurity is an Immigration Issue
Last month, New York State declared a disaster emergency, urging eligible citizens to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The culprit? Not the usual suspects of the past few years, but rather a deadly virus all but eradicated from the Americas decades ago thanks to vaccination: Polio. As this crippling illness surges back into relevance in communities across the state, one naturally wonders where in the world this all came from?
Mainstream news coverage of this public health scare seems to have a hard time discussing the source of the outbreak. For example, the New York Times notes that poliovirus is likely to spread in communities with low vaccination rates but fails to mention where it is spreading from. Only the CDC and, unique among major news sources, the Economist, explain that the variant currently circulating in the United States comes from a live vaccine which then mutated, allowing the poliovirus to spread from person to person. This specific type of vaccine has not been used in America since 2000 and is only in use in underdeveloped countries in Africa and Asia. This means the strain must have originated somewhere abroad where the outdated vaccine is common.
How, then, did this spread across the Atlantic and begin circulating in communities where it poses a grave risk?
Quite simply, the United States immigration system has very few biosecurity precautions for arrivals by plane and sea. Only refugees and people applying to live permanently in the United States are subject to medical examination, with tourists and business travelers holding or not requiring visas completely exempt. The United States rightfully restricts visitors who attempt to enter from countries where the risk of terrorism is high, but takes no such precautions with countries where dangerous communicable diseases, long ago eliminated by vaccines in the West, are still spreading. This virus likely came to the United States with a resident of or visitor to one of these countries who then flew to New York and was able to enter because our controls on entry from disease-endemic countries are inadequate despite our recent pandemic experience.
When diseases from abroad are in danger of spreading, the president has the power to limit entry to protect American lives. For example, the White House recently announced screening of flights coming from Uganda in a bid to prevent Ebola from spreading into the United States. However, this power is very rarely used (with the exception of COVID-19) because of the economic and political concerns that come with restricting travel from entire countries.
Diseases like Ebola are dramatic and easy to sensationalize but not a major threat, while quiet killers like polio can escape notice until they’re actively spreading in the United States. A rational approach to containing poliovirus would promote vaccination for Americans while also keeping disease out in the first place. This can be done with more scrutiny for visitor health and targeted screening of entries related to countries where the virus is endemic, just like we do for countries that pose a terror or transnational crime risk.
It must be noted that even limited uses of the presidential power to mitigate the entry of diseases break down at our insecure Southern border, where COVID-positive migrants are frequently admitted and released. The number of illegal migrants arriving at the border from countries outside the Americas, including many where polio and other diseases are still transmitted, has grown exponentially and increases the risk of diseases like polio taking hold. The Biden administration has consistently refused to use the powers available to it to their fullest extent, like Title 42 which allows the denial of entry for foreigners on health grounds, and continues to admit millions every year without real scrutiny for infectious diseases.
The takeaway from this completely avoidable epidemic is clear: The United States should be more, not less, strict when it comes to detecting potential disease threats. Title 42 is an important tool that merits expanding, not ending, so that tragedies like the children now in danger of permanent disability in New York can be prevented. If President Biden truly believed that COVID was his highest priority upon taking office, he should be consistent and use his powers to secure our land, air, and sea borders and prevent potentially even deadlier epidemics from taking root.
Unfortunately, even as diseases that were once a distant memory reappear, the Biden administration seems to be paralyzed.