Syria has had no reported cases of polio for over a decade, but this cruel and crippling disease has now re-emerged in the region. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN's child agency (UNICEF) have sprung into action to tackle the emergency. The organisations will carry out the largest-ever consolidated immunisation operation to vaccinate more than 20 million children both within Syria and in neighbouring countries.
UNICEF's Chief of Polio told Reuters that the outbreak was "a tragedy for children" and that it served as a "stark reminder" how quickly polio can recur in places where children are under-immunised. With the ongoing conflict, Syria's immunisation rates among young children have plummeted from more than 90% to less than 70%.
It's unclear at this stage how the virus has reappeared in the Middle East region. It could have been carried by people travelling to Syria from countries where polio is still endemic, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. However the disease has arrived, experts say that children living in unsanitary conditions due to the fighting will be particularly vulnerable, since the virus is spread through faecal-oral transmission and contaminated food and water.
Vaccination campaigns have already been conducted among more than 650,000 Syrian children, including more than 100,000 in the northeast province where the polio outbreak has been confirmed. A spokesperson for the WHO said that the mass immunisation of children could take up to six months, but that only a concerted and consolidated programme would ensure the outbreak was contained. Inside Syria, children will also receive vaccinations against measles, mumps and rubella.
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