A strain of polio originating in Pakistan has crippled more than a dozen children in war-torn Syria. The cases were confirmed in a province bordering the Kurdish-controlled northeast, but the Kurds are running out of vaccine and say the United Nations has declined to give them more.
The anxiety on the face of Dr. Soliman Ahmed is obvious as he explains how fearful he and others at the Kurdish Red Crescent are about the possibility of a polio epidemic in northeast Syria.
Arab refugees are flooding into Syria’s Kurdistan from the neighboring province of Deir al-Zor, where the World Health Organization confirmed last month an outbreak of polio that could potentially put neighboring countries and even Europe at risk of contagion.
“We started to get worried because we have a lot of displaced people from north of Syria, including Deir al-Zor, so we are worried that we could have among us now some cases, and so we started a massive case of vaccination about a month ago,” said Dr. Ahmed.
Polio is a highly contagious viral infection that can cause paralysis and breathing problems, with more severe cases leading to death. Polio is harbored in the intestinal system and can be transmitted either orally, including from coughs or sneezes, or through contact with infected feces.
So far, 22 cases have been confirmed in Deir al-Zor. The World Health Organization
is alarmed that the once-rare disease could be resurrected and has declared a polio emergency across the Middle East.
WHO said the strain found in Deir al-Zor was linked to the strain of Pakistani origin found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in the past year. Along with along with other international agencies, the WHO is scrambling to stymie Syria's first outbreak in 14 years through a massive vaccination campaign.
But Syria’s Kurdistan was not part of that U.N. vaccination campaign despite its closeness to Deir al-Zor, said Kurdish doctors. Maha Omo of the Kurdish Red Crescent said they held two meetings with U.N. representatives recently.
“We discussed our needs for medication and children's milk. We were told we can’t help you because the Syrians objected to giving you anything, you have to be under the umbrella of the Syrian Arabic Red Crescent and that’s why we can’t give you anything,” said Omo.
The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fell back from large swathes of Kurdistan in the early months of the two-and-half year civil war and the Kurds are now mainly in control of their region. The Kurdish Red Crescent is not affiliated with the official Syrian Red Crescent and is not getting any polio vaccine supplies from the Syrian authorities.
spokeswoman, Juliette Touma, said the challenge facing the U.N. agencies in Syria was immense. She said UNICEF and partners had vaccinated about 1.4 million children inside Syria including some in highly contested areas such as Deir al-Zor.
She said the campaign was hard to do given the ongoing conflict, and UNICEF needed commitment from warring parties if the planned six rounds of vaccinations were to be completed as scheduled by April.
But several months ago in an interview with VOA, the head of the World Food Program, Etharin Cousin, explained that the U.N. was obliged to work with the official Syrian agencies for the distribution of emergency supplies. It is a position rebels battling to oust President Assad and some private international charities have criticized in the past.
In a letter published this month in the British medical journal The Lancet
, German polio experts Martin Eichner and Stefan Brockmann warned that Syrian refugee flows would spread the disease and could reach Europe, which has been polio-free for more than 10 years.
Dr. Ahmed said the Kurdish Red Crescent launched a vaccination campaign of its own when news emerged of the polio outbreak and they tried to vaccinate up to 5,000 children a day. But the campaign is losing momentum.
“We don’t have enough vaccination to vaccinate all the children between the newborn until the age of five,” he said.
Increasing numbers of refugees are moving through Kurdistan to flee north into Turkey, raising the risk that polio could spread there as well.