Syria On High Alert, Possible Poliovirus Infections Detected In 22 People
October 25, 2013

Syria On High Alert, Possible Poliovirus Infections Detected In 22 People

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) reported a cluster of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) cases in the Syrian Arab Republic. This cluster was first detected in early October in the Deir al-Zor province and is currently under investigation by public health officials.

According to Reuters’ Stephanie Nebehay on Thursday (Oct. 24), the WHO reported that at least 22 people in Syria are suspected of having the wild poliovirus (WPV) illness, a crippling disease that has not been seen in the country in 14 years.

Initially, the WHO was informed by the national polio laboratory in Damascus on Oct. 19 of two suspected cases of polio from those diagnosed with AFP, but maintained that it would not know more until final results came in from the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region office.

Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for WHO, told Reuters that most of those stricken by AFP were from Deir al-Zor province and most of the cases have been children under the age of two. He added that more than 100,000 children under the age of five are now at risk of polio in the region.

There is no cure for this highly infectious, debilitating disease; the only known protection from it is through immunization, which is typically given in three doses.

The country’s Ministry of Health told the WHO last week that it was treating this event as a cluster of ‘hot’ AFP cases and would offer an update upon final lab results. The country had called for an urgent response from health experts and a surveillance alert was subsequently issued for the region to actively search for additional cases. As well, neighboring countries made plans to provide supplementary immunization for at-risk individuals.

Rosenbauer showed his agreement by adding in his interview with Reuters that the “main concern right now is to quickly launch an immunization response.” Currently, vaccination programs are being planned across Syria starting in November but the logistics were still under discussion, he added.

"Everybody is treating this as an outbreak (of polio) and is in outbreak response mode," Rosenbauer said. Laboratory testing still continues, but Rosenbauer suspects that when the results are made public it is “very, very likely” the confirmation will be that of wild poliovirus.

It is believed that most, if not all, of the 22 victims have not been previously vaccinated or have received only a single dose of the oral polio vaccine.

Polio, which invades the nervous system and causes irreversible damage and paralysis within hours of contraction, is endemic to only three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, sporadic cases often occur in other countries, including, currently, a widespread outbreak in the Horn of Africa.

Assuming that lab results come back with a confirmation of polio, the next step would be to find where the virus originated, noted Rosenbauer. At that point, “every isolated virus [would get] looked at genetically to see where is the parent. Hopefully that will provide some clarity on where it would have come from."

UNICEF on Thursday said it had chartered a plane filled with vaccines and food bound for Syria, to help prevent and/or combat the rising the threat of other types of disease and malnutrition that are plaguing the region, which is also in the midst of a civil war. The plane has landed in Beirut and will now be trucked into Syria, carrying vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella.

The WHO’s International Travel and Health is recommending that all travelers to and from polio-affected areas be fully vaccinated against the virus.