From monkeypox to polio, here’s why so many viruses are attacking the West

A number of dangerous and unusual diseases have made their way into Britain in the last six months – and they may not be the last

Gordon Richardson doesn’t remember the moment his legs failed. But he does remember the nine months he spent in hospital, wrapped in plaster from his armpits to his toes. “It was awful, I couldn’t move,” said Richardson, now 69. 

When he was three, Richardson collapsed when saying goodnight to his father. It was the first sign he was infected with a virus that altered the course of his life: polio. 

“Initially I had almost total paralysis, I only had use of my right eyelid,” he said. “Gradually I recovered the use of my head, neck, shoulders, most of my left arm and half of my right arm. But everything below my chest is basically paralysed … I’ve been in a wheelchair for 66 years.”

Polio, an incurable infectious disease which mainly affects children, was declared eradicated in the UK in 2003. Now, the wild virus circulates only in Pakistan and Afghanistan thanks to widespread vaccination campaigns. 

But last Wednesday, the UK declared a national incident after experts sounded the alarm about the detection of vaccine-derived polio in London’s sewage system. A series of positive test results stretching back to February suggest there is ongoing transmission in north east London. 

Polio is not the first dangerous and unusual virus to have arrived in Britain in the past six months. Aside from Covid, the UK detected a deadly strain of H5 bird flu in January, Lassa fever in February, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever in March and monkeypox in May. 

“There’s a name for what we’re seeing at the moment in the UK and elsewhere, it’s called chatter,” said Prof Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

Some experts say the number of new diseases to have hit the UK in the past six months can also be linked to pandemic-related disruption, the easing of restrictions and a shift in migration patterns away from Europe post-Brexit. 

Since leaving the European Union, non-EU immigration has boomed, with many more people coming from Asia and Africa. 

“People going from this country to other countries and back is probably the biggest driver of disease importations,” said Prof Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia. 

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