UN health agency confirms polio outbreak in Syria

UNICEF has joined the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners to launch a huge immunization campaign against polio in Syria. Photo: UNICEF

29 October 2013 – The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today confirmed 10 cases of polio in conflict-stricken Syria, adding that health authorities in the country and neighbouring nations have already begun a comprehensive response to the outbreak.

In a briefing to reporters in Geneva, WHO Communications Officer Oliver Rosenbauer said that out of 22 reported cases of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP), 10 had been confirmed as being the result of Wild Polio Virus Type 1. The remaining 12 cases are still being investigated.

The cases were initially reported on 17 October in the Deir Al Zour province in the north-east region of Syria. Due to the protracted conflict, which has displaced millions, Syria had already been considered at high-risk for vaccine-preventable diseases. However, the country has not experienced a case of polio since 1999.

Polio, whose virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine attacking the nervous system, is highly infectious and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.

Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, and stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis and among those paralyzed, five to 10 per cent die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

Mr. Rosenbauer said the next step was to look at the isolated viruses and identify where they came from, to shed light on the source of the outbreak.

The 22 people who have been tested are children, mostly toddlers less than two years old. All of them appeared to be under or unimmunized, with some having received one dose of a vaccine and others not receiving any vaccination at all. Mr. Rosenbauer said the children came down with fever and were then paralysed.

WHO spokesperson Glenn Thomas added that health authorities in Syria and neighbouring countries had already begun the planning and implementation of the comprehensive outbreak response.

Meanwhile, a UN spokesperson in New York reported today that Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF, ended a two-day visit to Damascus, in which he said that the Syrian Government and agency had agreed on the importance of reaching hundreds of thousands of children in some of the worst-affected parts of the war-torn country with life saving vaccines, including those against polio.

He said that Mr. Lake said that immunizing children is in its very nature non-political and has no connection to any military considerations. Mr. Lake said that, with cases of polio now emerging in Syria for the first time since 1999, vaccinating children against polio is an urgent and critical priority for Syria and for the whole world.


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