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October 29, 2013

Polio Confirmed in Syria

by Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization (WHO) says it has confirmed 10 cases of polio detected in northeast Syria in mid-October.  The WHO warns protective measures must be taken to prevent the crippling disease from spreading in the region.  

The World Health Organization says 12 other suspected cases of polio are still under investigation.  A spokesman for WHO’s Polio Eradication Program says in a VOA interview there are no additional so-called hot cases at the moment.

Oliver Rosenbauer says disease surveillance is ongoing in Syria and in neighboring countries to look for other cases of acute flaccid paralysis.  But, for now, he says the only known cases are the 22 in Deir Ezzor that were detected and initially reported on October 17.

“The next step will be to genetically look at these isolated viruses and see where they came from.  So that should give some clarity on the origin.  In terms of the danger, of course, this is a communicable disease, and with population movements it can travel.  It can travel to other areas, and so the risk is high of spreading across the region," said Rosenbauer.

This is the first outbreak of polio in Syria in 14 years.  The WHO says most of the victims are children under the age of two, who probably were not vaccinated against the disease. There is no cure for this crippling disease. But polio can be prevented through immunization.

Before the war broke out in 2011, 95 percent of Syria’s children were vaccinated against polio. The WHO estimates half-a-million have not been immunized.  The United Nations and other health agencies are in the middle of a two-week campaign to immunize 2.4 million children in Syria against the disease.

Rosenbauer says plans are afoot to begin large-scale polio immunization campaigns in neighboring countries in early November.  He says the wild poliovirus travels silently across borders.  

He says polio is a very dangerous and debilitating disease, which must be stopped before it spreads.  He says the presence of this virus in Syria, a previously polio-free country, is of great concern.

“I think what this really shows is that polio-free areas everywhere in the world are at risk as long as you have endemic transmission of the virus remaining anywhere.  And, of course, the endemic countries, there are three of them - as you know, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan - so, it is from there that polio will continue to spread.  And I think countries with complex emergencies, where health systems tend to deteriorate, where immunization levels drop, children in those areas are particularly at risk of diseases such as polio,"  he said.

There were 350,000 cases of polio when the World Health Organization began its global polio eradication campaign in 1988.  The number of cases has now dropped by 99 percent.  But getting rid of the few remaining cases of this crippling disease from the last three endemic, conflict-ridden countries is proving to be an enormous challenge.

The World Health Organization warns as long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio.