The United Nations has announced that it will vaccinate 2.5 million children and eight million others in Syria to prevent a widespread outbreak of polio.
At the same time, public health officials in Lebanon have said that, in the next few weeks, they will administer the polio vaccine to all children under age 5 in their country, which is sheltering 700,000 Syrian refugees.
The discovery a few weeks ago of 22 paralyzed children, mostly babies and toddlers, in Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria raised the alarm. Government officials and rebels both said they believe the children were stricken with polio.
Laboratory tests have confirmed two cases as polio – the first in Syria since 1999. Results for the rest of the cases are due next week.
The UN said there was no time to waste in vaccinating children against the disease. Before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, 95 percent of children were immunized against polio; now an estimated 500,000 children are not.
“This is polio until proven otherwise,” Dr. Bruce Aylward, the assistant director general for polio and emergencies at the World Health Organization, told the New York Times.
“The virus is the kind of virus that finds vulnerable populations,” Aylward explained. “And the combination of vulnerability and low immunization coverage, that is a time bomb. There is a real risk of this exploding into an outbreak with hundreds of cases.”
Public health experts said the disease may have been brought into Syria by Islamic militants who joined the rebels to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s troops as there are signs that the polio strain is from Pakistan.
While vaccination efforts have widely eradicated the disease – there were just 223 reported cases of polio worldwide in 2012 – it still exists in Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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