At least 22 people—primarily babies and toddlers—are now believed to have contracted polio in Syria, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported last week. The polio outbreak is the first in Syria in at least 14 years. Before the civil war in Syria began in 2011, an estimated 95 percent of Syrian children were vaccinated against polio. The war, however, has crippled public health systems; fully half of the country’s hospitals have been destroyed or are so severely damaged as to be inoperable. According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) estimates, at least a half a million Syrian children, all under age 5, have not been immunized and are at risk of polio.
Some 5 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war and generally live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. Desperately short of food and medicine, many are living hand-to-mouth in parks, vacant buildings, or in cramped quarters with relatives. At least 2 million Syrian have left the country, and people continue to flood across borders in an uncontrolled manner. UNICEF spokesperson Simon Ingram points out that this exodus “increases the possibilities and means by which the [polio] virus can spread.” WHO has also reported increases in cases of hepatitis A, measles, and typhoid in refugee camps in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.
In 1988, WHO launched an immunization campaign that has largely eradicated polio in developed countries. However, the disease remains endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. A Taliban ban on vaccination in Afghanistan and Pakistan threatens to derail the dramatic progress made toward wiping out polio. The Taliban denounces vaccination as a Western plot to sterilize Muslims.