DAMASCUS, Syria – On November 8, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) announced plans to provide 20 million Middle Eastern children with Polio vaccinations. Deemed the “largest-everconsolidated immunization response in the Middle East,” the plan aims to combat the recent Polio outbreak in Syria, which has spread to other countries in the region as the virus travels through contaminated water and refugees continue to disperse.
The immunization response will focus on seven key nations and territories including Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Syria, Turkey. So far, more than 650,000 children have received vaccinations in Syria while UNICEF works to procure more doses of oral polio vaccine (OPV). WHO and UNICEF hope to have 1.7 billion doses by the end of 2013 as demand for OPV continues to increase.
UNICEF reports that Syria’s immunization rates stood at 90% prior to the conflict but have since fallen to 68%. These figures become even more jarring in light of the fact that Syria actually eradicated polio in 1999 as the first Arab state to implement mass immunization.
Epidemiologists have warned that a failure to eradicate the disease in the Middle East threatens the progress the rest of the world has made in its own eradication efforts. Peter Crowley, UNICEF’s Chief of Polio, said that the recent polio outbreak “should serve as a stark reminder to countries and communities that polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere.”
Because there is no known cure for polio, immunization becomes essential in fighting the spread of the disease, which often develops as a result of unsanitary conditions and the consumption of contaminated food and drink.
The recent polio outbreak is not only affecting regional health, but is also exacerbating the political situation in Syria. Early reports from WHO indicated that the particular strain of polio affecting the region originated in Pakistan, but genetic sequencing of the virus has not yet been conclusive. Syrian leadership, however, has used this information to bolster its propaganda. “The virus originates in Pakistan and has been brought to Syria by the jihadists who come from Pakistan,” said Syrian Minister of Social Affairs, Kindah al-Shammat.
The Syrian government’s blaming of rebels for the polio outbreak coincides with its recent move to deprive Syrian opposition to Assad’s regime of adequate healthcare. Withholding healthcare and systematically attacking medical facilities in opposition territories, the Syrian government has contributed to the growing health problems in the region.
With the continued support of UNICEF and the WHO, however, there may be hope for Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, as the need for adequate healthcare continues in the midst of violent conflict.
– Lucy Morroni