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Egypt Fights Back Against Syria Polio Outbreak

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Egypt this week joins other countries in the Middle East in ramping up vaccinations against polio. The move comes as an outbreak in Syria threatens a comeback of the nearly-eradicated disease.

As part of the endeavor, Egypt has begun a new round of vaccinations against polio, one of several national efforts in the Middle East after the crippling disease recently resurfaced in war-torn Syria.

UNICEF representative Philippe Duamelle in Cairo notes the virus “needs no visa to cross borders.”

“Polio is back in the region. This is terrible news for everyone,” says Duamelle.

Across Cairo, anxious parents are bringing their children to health ministry clinics, as the Syria outbreak brought Egypt's immunization campaign new urgency. Ahmed Fathi stood in line at a center in the south of the capital as soon as the campaign got underway.

Fathi said he, like many people, is very worried and that's why he brought his child the first day. He wants to make sure nothing like that happens in Egypt.


Egypt has a robust immunization program, and was declared polio free in 2006. But in Syria, nearly three years of war has disrupted vaccination efforts, and after 14 years of no reported cases of polio, the disease has made a comeback.

The Syrian government, along with world health groups, is working to establish safe corridors to let health workers access children in need of the multi-stage vaccination process.

Mass campaigns are also underway in Lebanon, which along with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey shelters large numbers of Syrian refugees. UNICEF's Duamelle says all children in the region under the age of five need to get vaccinated.

But it is not just the Syrian outbreak that is the problem. Last year in Egypt the same strain of virus causing illness in Syria was found in Cairo's sewers.

Egyptian Health Minister Maha el Rabat, who toured various Cairo clinics to drum up support, says the polio virus could have arrived in the country by any number of means.

“Because we have a dynamic action of people moving in and out of the country and we are having refugees as well and we are having our people going to other countries and coming back so the wild virus was detected," says el Rabat.

The strain originated in Pakistan, which is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Rumors spread by some religious leaders and others in those countries that the vaccine is a plot by Western powers to harm, or even sterilize Muslim children have kept some parents from vaccinating their children. UNICEF's Duamelle says these conspiracy theories are hugely damaging.

“It is absolutely not true. Vaccination campaigns worldwide are organized to save children's lives,” says Duamelle.

But among even conservative Muslims here in Egypt, such suspicions are dismissed.

Hanna Ramadan, wearing the niqab, or full veil, while carrying her child to a hilltop clinic in eastern Cairo, showed faith in the efforts to stop the disease. She says the health ministry is “very careful about such things.”

The campaign, led by public and private groups, including the World Health Organization and Rotary International, aims to deliver 13 million doses of vaccine in Egypt.
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