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Minnesota to screen for monkeypox, polio virus particles in wastewater

The University of Minnesota is working on testing techniques as monkeypox continues to spread and polio appears in New York City wastewater.

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The University of Minnesota has been testing wastewater screening for polio and monkeypox at Twin Cities area wastewater treatment plants.
Contributed / Metropolitan Council
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ST. PAUL — The University of Minnesota is working with public health officials and local agencies to begin screening wastewater for monkeypox and polio.

Researchers working have already been testing ways to screen for the monkeypox virus at two Twin Cities wastewater plants, said Dr. Mark Osborn, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota medical school who co-leads the program. So far, they have not detected any monkeypox virus in Minnesota wastewater, Osborn said, but testing now gives the state an early warning system for infectious diseases.

“If we start them and start surveilling before we see anything, then we'll be very well positioned,” he said, explaining that establishing a “zero level” gives officials a starting point for detecting when viral particles begin to appear.

Now that the monkeypox screening technique has been validated, it could soon be used for regular testing at other sites in Minnesota. Osborn said the university will work with the state health department to determine the best plants to screen.

Wastewater screening for COVID-19 has become an invaluable tool for tracking the coronavirus’ presence in a community. Data compiled by the U of M accurately predicted January’s unprecedented surge in cases driven by the new omicron variant of the virus, and as widespread COVID-19 testing declines, wastewater has become one of the main ways public health officials monitor for the coronavirus.

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The university wastewater program tracks COVID-19 virus particles in wastewater from more than 40 treatment plants across the state of Minnesota — a sample that covers about two-thirds of the state’s population.

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Public health experts and officials have recognized the value of screening sewage for disease and are now expanding their use of the technique to detect other diseases. Osborn said monkeypox and polio are at the forefront right now, but they’ll continue to monitor for other pathogens to add to the program.

The U of M program is just one of many across the U.S. working on expanding wastewater disease surveillance, and some cities have already picked up emerging outbreaks of disease. Last week, New York City detected polio in its wastewater. San Francisco detected monkeypox in its wastewater in June.

Monkeypox started to spread in Europe this spring, concerning world public health observers as the virus is typically found in western and central Africa. The first U.S. case appeared in May, and Minnesota saw its first case in late June. As of Aug. 17, there have been 13,517 cases nationally and 78 cases in Minnesota. President Joe Biden in August declared the outbreak a public health emergency.

Monkeypox is a viral illness that can cause fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, head and body aches and a rash that can resemble pimples or blisters. It’s spread through direct and indirect contact with the virus, such as through contact with bodily fluids, lesions or respiratory particles. As of late July, Minnesota cases had been reported in men who are gay, bisexual or have had sex with other men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone at high risk for the virus get a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the CDC last month confirmed the second time polio has been spread domestically since 1979. An unvaccinated young adult from the New York City area ended up with paralysis from the infection, the agency said. Officials said the virus likely came into the U.S. from outside of the country before spreading.

Despite being declared eradicated in the U.S. in 1979, the CDC said it’s likely polio has been circulating in the New York City area since April. Polio was once a dreaded disease in the U.S. that disabled tens of thousands each year, but mass vaccinations virtually eliminated the disease. There have only been occasional cases in the last four decades in the U.S.

The CDC is devoting resources to tackle a potential reemergence of the polio, and is working with local public health agencies to develop better screening for the virus in wastewater.

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Osborn said researchers with the U of M hope to start beta testing their polio screening technique starting next week.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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