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Poliovirus Type 2 Returns

Monday, August 17, 2009 at 10:10 AM EDT

The global battle to eradicate poliomyelitis is already 9 years behind schedule. To make matters worse, type 2 poliovirus, which was declared eradicated in 1999, has returned.

There are three serotypes of poliovirus, each of which causes poliomyelitis. The vaccine used by WHO in the global eradication effort is a trivalent preparation comprising all three serotypes. When type 2 poliovirus was eliminated, many countries began using monovalent type 1 and type 3 vaccines: one vaccine for type 1 and another for type 3. As a consequence of this immunization strategy, population immunity to type 2 poliovirus declined. But if type 2 poliovirus was eradicated, where has it come from?

It came from the poliovirus vaccine.

The trivalent vaccine that is used in the eradication effort is an infectious vaccine. The vaccine is ingested, the viruses replicate in the intestine, and immunity develops. Viruses of all three serotypes undergo genetic changes during replication in the alimentary tract. As a consequence, the vaccine recipient excretes neurovirulent polioviruses. These so-called vaccine-derived polioviruses (VDPV) can cause outbreaks of poliomyelitis in non-immune people, as described in Polio among the Amish.

The outbreak of type 2 poliovirus in Nigeria began in 2006. There have been 126 cases of paralytic disease reported so far in 2009. Before 2003, the year that Nigeria began a boycott of polio immunization, the trivalent vaccine was used. Immunization resumed with monovalent types 1 and 3 vaccine in 2004. Therefore the source of the VDPV type 2 is most likely the trivalent vaccine used before 2003.

The resurrection of type 2 polio highlights the difficulties involved in using an infectious viral vaccine to eradicate the disease. In reality, type 2 poliovirus was not eradicated in 1999, because that virus was still present in the trivalent vaccine that was being used. Clearly the virus was still circulating in humans, despite the fact that no type 2 poliomyelitis was observed.

In response to the type 2 outbreak in Nigeria, trivalent vaccine is being used again. It’s not difficult to imagine that this will lead to another cycle of eradication and emergence of type 2 polio. What’s the solution to this apparently endless circle? Use inactivated poliovirus vaccine, which I’ve been dreaming about for some time.

Roberts, L. (2007). Vaccine-Related Polio Outbreak in Nigeria Raises Concerns Science, 317 (5846), 1842-1842 DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5846.1842

Roberts, L. (2009). Type 2 Poliovirus Back From The Dead in Nigeria Science, 325 (5941), 660-661 DOI: 10.1126/science.325_660

Jegede, A. (2007). What Led to the Nigerian Boycott of the Polio Vaccination Campaign? PLoS Medicine, 4 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040073