Polio Is Spreading In War-Torn Syria, And The Outbreak Is Expected To Get Worse

A health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child in Damascus CREDIT: AP PHOTO/UNICEF, OMAR SANADIKI
A health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child in Damascus CREDIT: AP PHOTO/UNICEF, OMAR SANADIKI

At the end of October, the United Nations confirmed 10 polio cases in Syria — a troubling sign that the deadly disease was beginning to re-emerge. After more than two years of warfare, the polio vaccination rate in Syria has plummeted from nearly 100 percent to just 45 percent, allowing the disease to take hold. The virus has now spread to four cities and partially paralyzed 17 young children, leading the World Health Organization to officially declare a polio emergency.

WHO has launched a massive vaccination campaign, and the Syrian government has agreed to immunize all children under the age of five. This week, the United Nations’ refugee program began airlifting polio vaccines for children in remote areas of the country. But as NPR reports, the outbreak is still expected to get worse.

That’s because the complicated political environment in Syria is preventing aid from reaching all areas of the country effectively. The country is currently split into regions controlled by the rebels, regions controlled by the regime, and areas that are in question. Children living in rebel territories are the hardest to reach, and polio vaccines aren’t making it to them.

One of those regions, Aleppo, is located along the country’s border with Turkey. But the Syrian regime has vetoed cross-border aid, preventing UN officials from reaching the children in this area by going through Turkey. The UN is only allowed to operate in areas where Syria has granted its permission. World powers have pressured Syria to allow cross-border aid, and some activists have access the rebels of deliberately blocking this type of relief as a tactic of warfare.

Mary Ana McGlasson, a nurse who’s currently working on humanitarian efforts in Syria, told NPR that the issues with the polio vaccination campaign are especially concerning because young children are being put at risk for the crippling disease. Although the new airlifting effort will help, it’s still not the most efficient way to reach the people along the Turkey border.

“My anger is directed at all parties to the conflict that are slowing down humanitarian aid even by a fraction,” McGlasson noted. “It’s children caught in the middle of that who are suffering, and that’s tragic to me.”

The ongoing violence in the region is already taking an outsized toll on Syrian children. A UN report released at the end of last month estimated that about 1.1 million children in the country have been displaced by the warfare, most of whom are under the age of 12. And the ones who remain behind are in desperate need of assistance. An estimated 4.6 million children are living in squalid conditions, without electricity or proper sanitation, in rebel-controlled regions. They’re facing widespread food shortages, and many are relying on contaminated drinking water that can carry the polio virus.