Syria Vows Polio Fight Will Continue, Blames Pakistan Rebels For Disease
November 5, 2013

Syria Vows Polio Fight Will Continue, Blames Pakistan Rebels For Disease

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Less than a week after wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) was confirmed in Syria, with 10 of 22 suspected cases being confirmed, the Syrian Arab Republic has vowed that it will ensure that all children in the country will receive vaccinations against the debilitating disease.

Syria said it will work feverishly with international organizations to ensure that all children in the country, even those in rebel-held regions, will be immunized against polio. The country also went on the offensive and lashed out at Pakistan over the outbreak.

“The virus originates in Pakistan and has been brought to Syria by the jihadists who come from Pakistan,” Minister of Social Affairs Kindah al-Shammat told the Associated Press on Sunday.

International health officials had initially theorized that Pakistan was the likely route of transmission, but the WHO has yet to complete its genetic sequencing of the virus, meaning any accusations are premature. The virus, which is endemic to Pakistan, could have also come from other countries, such as Nigeria and Afghanistan, where polio is also endemic.

Oliver Rosenbauer, a polio-eradication spokesman for the WHO, said even if the virus is found to originate in Pakistan, it will still be nearly impossible to determine how it came to Syria. He said an adult fighter is the least likely of carriers, as the virus tends to travel mostly via children who have not been vaccinated.

However, the possibility that a polio strain from Pakistan may be taking hold in war-ravaged Syria is a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists who have long warned that failure to eradicate the disease in the remaining pockets could undermine all the progress seen in the rest of the world.

Polio was eradicated from Syria in 1999, after the country became the first Arab state to implement mass immunization standards. But last month, health experts found acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) in 22 children from the Deir al-Zor province, and after preliminary analysis, suspected the children may actually have polio. Last week, the WHO was informed that 10 of those children did in fact have the debilitating disease. The other 12 are still awaiting confirmation.

Dr. Fouad Fouad, a Syrian epidemiologist currently teaching at the American University of Beirut, said that where the virus originated is less important than how it was able to take root in Syria. “It is possible that polio was brought in by Pakistani fighters, but the blame should start earlier,” he said.

Before civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, nearly 95 percent of the children under the age of five were vaccinated, which was enough to halt the disease. But since war started, as many as 500,000 children have gone without immunization. Many of the regions held by rebels couldn't be reached, making it impossible for WHO and Ministry of Health officials to get to children in need. This, according to Fouad, has left a huge hole in the country’s safety net.

Currently, there are more than three million children under age five in Syria, and they all must be vaccinated. However, the WHO admits that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to reach children in many areas, due to the fighting. The regime has repeatedly blocked delivery of humanitarian assistance to war-torn regions.

It may take an international resolution before many of Syria’s children can be vaccinated against the threat of polio.

Fouad likened such a resolution to that of the chemical-weapons accord that forced Assad to give up his arsenal. “Syrians are dying of starvation and communicable diseases. If the U.N. Security Council can issue a resolution on chemical weapons, they should do the same for health.”

If a resolution cannot be met, then Syria will likely join Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan as the world’s exporters of polio, he said.

Syria announced last month that it had launched a country-wide vaccination campaign against polio, measles, mumps and rubella. UNICEF and the WHO also announced plans to immunize 2.4 million children across Syria.

On Monday, Syria reinvigorated its words by promising to ensure the delivery of vaccinations and humanitarian aid across the entire country.

"We want vaccinations to reach every Syrian child wherever they are - either in a conflict zone or an area where the Syrian army is present," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told a televised news conference in Damascus. "This must reach every Syrian child and we pledge this (will happen), and we will grant every opportunity to humanitarian organizations to reach every Syrian child."