The mass vaccination against polio, which can spread rapidly among children, is already under way in the Middle East a week after the region declared a polio emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN children’s fund UNICEF said.
Aiming to repeatedly vaccinate about 20 million children in seven countries and territories, it will be the largest-ever consolidated immunization response in the Middle East.
“The polio outbreak in Syria is not just a tragedy for children, it is an urgent alarm—and a crucial opportunity to reach all under-immunized children wherever they are,” Peter Crowley, UNICEF’s Chief of Polio, said in a statement.
He said the recent outbreak in Syria, confirmed by the WHO last week, should “serve as a stark reminder to countries and communities that polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere.”
WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari said it would take six months of repeated campaigns to reach 22 million children.
“It is going to need quite an intense period of activity to raise the immunity in a region that has really been ravaged both by conflict in some parts, but also by large population movements,” she told a briefing in Geneva.
The first polio outbreak in Syria since 1999, it has so far paralyzed 10 children and poses a risk of paralysis to hundreds of thousands of children across the region, the WHO said.
Syria’s immunization rates have plummeted from more than 90 percent before the conflict to currently around 68 percent.
Preliminary evidence has indicated the virus is of Pakistani origin, but results of genetic sequencing are still awaited. Polio is still endemic in Pakistan, along with Nigeria and Afghanistan.