Syria polio outbreak 'spreads
At least 22 people - most of them
babies and toddlers - are now
believed to have contracted polio in
Syria, the World Health Organization
If confirmed, it would be the first
outbreak of the disease there in 14
years. Syria's Health Ministry began an
immunisation drive on Thursday.
Before Syria's civil war began in 2011,
some 95% of children were vaccinated
against the disease.
Now, Unicef estimates 500,000 children
have not been immunised.
WHO said the suspected outbreak
centres on the eastern province of Deir
"There is a cluster of 22 acute flaccid
paralysis cases that is being investigated
in that area," WHO spokesman Oliver
Rosenbauer told Reuters news agency.
"Everybody is treating this as an
outbreak and is in outbreak response
Two cases have already been confirmed
by laboratory tests while the WHO
expects final laboratory confirmation on
the remaining 20 cases next week.
There are more than 100,000 children,
all under age five, now at risk of polio in
Deir Ezzor province alone, which has
been caught in fierce battles between
Syrian government forces and opposition
The city of Deir Ezzor remains partially
controlled by forces loyal to President
Bashar al-Assad, while the countryside is
in the hands of the opposition.
The WHO is now working with the UN,
Syria's Health Ministry and other
agencies on a mass immunisation
But it is expected to be a difficult
undertaking, says the BBC's Imogen
Foulkes in Geneva, given the widespread
insecurity and estimates that over half of
Syria's medical professionals have left
More than four million Syrians have been
displaced internally by the conflict and
generally live in overcrowded, unsanitary
conditions. The WHO has already
reported increases in cases of measles,
typhoid and hepatitis A.
Aid agencies are also developing
emergency immunisation plans for Syrian
refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon,
Turkey and Egypt.
Syrian refugees are also at risk of outbreaks
"Obviously, we're extremely worried
about the situation," Simon Ingram, a
spokesman for Unicef's operations in the
Middle East, told the BBC.
"People are flooding across borders in
an uncontrolled manner and this
increases the possibilities and means by
which the virus can spread."
No known cure
The highly contagious disease is most
often spread by consuming food or
liquid contaminated with faeces.
Polio has been largely eradicated in
developed countries but remains
endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan and
Worldwide, polio cases have fallen from
an estimated 350,000 at the start of a
WHO-led immunisation campaign in
1988 to just 223 reported cases last
There is no known cure, though a series
of vaccinations can confer immunity.
Young children are particularly
susceptible to paralytic polio, the most
serious form of the disease.