Iraq was free of polio for nearly 14 years – until March, when the crippling disease paralyzed two children and set alarm bells ringing.
Now, a massive immunization campaign is underway in the war-torn country. The effort – spearheaded by the Ministry of Health, with support from the World Health Organization and the United Nations' Children’s Fund – aims to reach more than 4 million children under age 5.
"Iraq has now become very vulnerable to a wider outbreak of this crippling and incurable disease," said WHO spokesman Paul Garwood, citing the country’s "relatively high number of unvaccinated children due to the insecurity and the difficulties in accessing families and children, especially in conflict zones."
U.N. health officials say hundreds of thousands of children are being displaced because of widespread violence. They say the children and their families often live in overcrowded, unsanitary facilities – conditions that put them at great risk of contracting infectious diseases.
The United Nations estimates nearly 1.2 million people have become internally displaced since the beginning of the year. In the past few days alone, the U.N. reports almost 200,000 people – nearly half of them children – have been forced to flee their homes.
The number of displaced has increased dramatically since June, when the militant group calling itself the Islamic State accelerated its attacks against the government, seizing large swaths of territory in northern Iraq.
Some 700,000 people have taken refuge in Iraq's Kurdistan region, including about 250,000 Iraqi children and 125,000 Syrian children. Dohuk governorate alone, which borders Turkey, now is home to about 400,000 displaced.
Militants impede vaccination campaign
Garwood says aid workers would like to immunize all Iraqi children against polio. But it’s unlikely they will be able to do so in areas controlled by militants.
Aid workers say they will not be able to immunize thousands of children from the minority Yazidi religious group, who are among 30,000 people stranded in the barren, blisteringly hot Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq. The Yazidis fled there after Islamic State militants threatened to kill them if they did not convert to Islam.
It’s believed that polio spread to Iraq from conflict-ridden Syria, once a polio-free country that now has 36 children paralyzed by the disease.
Iraq is among seven countries in the region where WHO and UNICEF plan to conduct polio-immunization campaigns. The organizations aim to reach 25 million children.