London, Asharq Al-Awsat—A suspected polio outbreak in Syria raised international concerns on Friday, with the United Nations confirming that they are mobilizing to vaccinate 2.5 million children in the country and more than 8 million others across the region to prevent a possible region-wide epidemic.
At least 22 suspected cases of polio have been reported by both government and opposition sources near the city of Deir Ezzor. The patients—mostly babies and toddlers—have presented with the classic symptoms of polio, including paralysis.
While there has been no official confirmation from the UN or World Health Organization, international bodies are mobilizing to preempt any spread of the disease. If confirmed, this would be the first outbreak of the disease in Syria for 14 years.
WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer told Reuters: “There is a cluster of 22 acute flaccid paralysis cases that is being investigated in that area.”
“Everybody is treating this as an outbreak and is in outbreak response mode,” he said.
According to official statistics, approximately 95 percent of children were vaccinated against the disease prior to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011. The nation-wide violence has hampered government-backed vaccination programs, with state institutes witnessing a significant decline in services as the war continues to rage, particularly in areas of the country that have fallen out of the Assad government’s control.
In a statement issued on Friday, UNICEF said: “The conflict in Syria has caused immense displacement with millions of children on the move, either inside the country or across borders into neighboring countries and beyond. As a result, routine immunization systems so critical to preventing childhood diseases have been disrupted or broken down, and children are now at far higher risk of diseases such as polio and measles.”
“Some 500,000 children in Syria have not been vaccinated against polio in the past two years due to insecurity and access constraints. Prior to the conflict, immunization coverage in Syria was about 95 percent,” the statement added.
The United Nations body also confirmed that “inside Syria, a campaign led by the Ministry of Health began on October 24 targeting 2.4 million children with vaccines against polio, measles, mumps and rubella.”
However, it is not clear how effective this government-backed campaign will be in combating the suspected polio outbreak, particularly given that Deiz Ezzor is under government control while the surrounding countryside is in rebel hands.
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus that invades the nervous system, causing symptoms that include fever, fatigue, vomiting and paralysis. According to statistics, cases of polio have fallen by over 99 percent over the past 25 years, from around 350,000 in 1988 to just 223 in 2012.