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Could Syria's polio outbreak threaten the Middle East?

The region's largest vaccination programme has not yet reached all
The region's largest vaccination programme has not yet reached all

Fears are growing that a polio outbreak in Syria could have an impact on the wider region if it is not controlled soon.

Poliomyelitis, commonly called polio, is a highly infectious disease that primarily affects children and can leave the sufferer paralysed for life. It reached pandemic proportions in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand during early part of the 20th century, but it is now unheard of in most countries. This used to be the case in Syria as well, but this changed in October last year when 10 cases of the virus were confirmed by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

These were the first cases in the country for 14 years and are a serious concern for the health of the nation's children. Equally worrying is the recent report of a case in Iraq – polio free since 2000 – that leads to fears of the virus spreading further. The Guardian newspaper reports that there are now 38 confirmed cases in Syria, and this outbreak will only add to the challenges that families and children face in this war-torn state.

The consequence of conflict

The ongoing conflict in Syria is severely hampering efforts to combat what has been described by United Nations (UN) officials as “the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio”. Fighting has seriously damaged the health care infrastructure and has forced the large scale movement of at risk groups. This has made it extremely difficult for these groups to access the treatments they need and just as hard for healthcare professionals to target their efforts.

Severely damaged infrastructure has also made it all but impossible to ensure that vaccinations are properly transported in the hot climate. These circumstances make the goal of 100% immunisation extremely hard to achieve, and, along with the recent case in Iraq, have called for a region-wide response.

Reacting now

So far over 22 million children across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories have been vaccinated. This is part of the largest campaign of vaccinations in the Middle East's history, but it still has not been able to reach everyone. Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for UNICEF, tells the Guardian that the aim of the campaign is to vaccinate children multiple times to ensure effectiveness. However, she goes on to say that if the war in Syria continues to prevent them from reaching everyone, then they cannot guarantee that the outbreak will be contained.

Some have been critical of what they see as a slow response by WHO. Sonia Bari, a spokesperson for the organisation's Global Polio Eradication Programme, disagrees, arguing that they have acted as quickly as possible. Bari says that the virus was detected in sewage in Egypt and Israel over a year ago and that WHO and regional governments acted immediately when the first case was confirmed. Right now it is paramount that all parties involved continue to work together to overcome the challenges created by the Syrian conflict, and get children the help they need.

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