Fewer than half of teenagers in parts of England have been vaccinated against polio, official data suggests as health chiefs sound the alarm over a suspected outbreak of the disease that has been eradicated in Britain for decades.
Parents of unvaccinated children are to be contacted by the NHS as part of a targeted vaccine drive in London — where polio is thought to be spreading — amid fears the disease could take off for the first time in 40 years.
Children are routinely immunised against polio but eight local authorities in England — mostly in the capital — had 50 per cent or lower uptake among Year 9s last year.
Just 35 per cent of 13 and 14-year-olds had received their final booster in Hillingdon, West London, which has the worst coverage in the country, followed by Brent, where a third were fully vaccinated.
London has always lagged behind the rest of the country when it comes to vaccine coverage but rates dropped nationally during the pandemic, linked to a lull in appointments, school closures and a rise in vaccine hesitancy.
Nottingham (50.4 per cent) and Middlesbrough (45.6 per cent) now also have some of the poorest rates, meanwhile coverage is below 60 per cent in Torbay, Leicester, Sandwell, Plymouth, Luton and Devon.
The UK Health Security Agency declared a national incident yesterday after finding multiple positive polio samples in sewage which contained mutations that suggest the virus is evolving as it spreads between people.
They were detected at the Beckton sewage treatment works, which covers a population of four million in north and east London.
It is not clear how far the virus has spread but health experts are concerned doctors no longer recognise the symptoms of polio because it has been eradicated in Britain since 2003.
While the virus can lead to permanent paralysis in rare cases, it typically causes flu-like symptoms that could easily be misdiagnosed as other more common infections, like Covid.