An outbreak of polio in war-torn Syria is threatening an extensive vaccination campaign undertaken by the World Health Organization (WHO) to eradicate the virus. 22 suspected cases of polio have recently been reported in northeast Syria, in yet another sign of the civil war’s toll on the country’s citizens and especially its children.
The unrest throughout Syria after more than two and a half years of war has resulted in six million refugees, half children who may or may have been vaccinated. Many are now living in crowded refugee camps in unsanitary conditions where disease can quickly spread. As Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and chair of prevention at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, says to ABC News,
“With the civil disturbance, vaccination programs are disrupted, so you have a susceptible population in Syria now. Then people who carry the virus in their intestinal tracts can transmit it, either person-to-person or through contaminated water systems.”
The virus lives in the gut and can enter the blood stream and then attack the spinal cord’s nerve, causing paralysis in 1 out of 200 people.
In August, Syrian public health professionals started seeing cases of children with acute flaccid paralysis, a “telltale sign of polio,” says ABC News. The cases were reported in Deir al-Zour, a province near Syria’s border with Iraq that has seen heavy fighting. On October 17, Syria’s national polio lab told the WHO that polio is the likely cause of at least two of the cases.
The WHO is planning a massive vaccination drive throughout the region in upcoming weeks. Vaccinating people is the best way to stop the spread of the virus as there is no treatment for it.
“In some areas, children born since the conflict started have had no vaccinations, meaning that conditions for an epidemic, which have no respect for national borders, are ripe. The number of people requiring medical assistance is increasing exponentially, as a direct result of conflict and indirectly because of the deterioration of a once-sophisticated public health system and the lack of adequate curative and preventive care.”
Polio is endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan where Islamist leaders in Waziristan have banned vaccination; health workers doing polio vaccinations in other parts of Pakistan have been murdered. Northwest Pakistan is thought to be the “probable source of the Syrian outbreak,” according to New Scientist. Another possible source of the the virus could be Pakistan; according to this theory, polio “arrived in Syria via Egypt and Israel, where the virus was found in sewage earlier this year.”
Prior to the war, polio had been eliminated in Syria since the 1990s; it was last detected in the country in 1999. Amid the ongoing unrest in Syria, vaccination rates have fallen from 95 percent in 2010 to an estimated 45 percent in 2013. At least a third of Syria’s public hospitals are now closed and, in some parts of the country, up to 70 percent of the health workforce has fled — leaving the country with few medical professional to detect and care for those who have been infected with polio.
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