On Saturday the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 22 cases of Polio, mostly in young children, have been confirmed in war-ravaged Syria. This is the first outbreak in this country in 14 years, according to WHO.
Syria's Health Ministry began immunizations on Thursday. Before the start of the country's civil war in 2011, 95 percent of Syria's children had been vaccinated. Now, UNICEF estimates over 200,000 children need immunization.
The outbreak is centered in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where 100,000 children under the age of 5-years old are in need of immunization. Oliver Rosenbauer, a WHO spokesman said,
"There is a cluster of 22 acute flaccid paralysis cases that is being investigated in that area. Everybody is treating this as an outbreak and is in outbreak response mode."
Deir Ezzor province has been caught right in the middle of the fighting between government forces and opposition fighters. The City of Deir Ezzor is under the partial control of forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, but the surrounding countryside is firmly controlled by the opposition.
Even with WHO, the Syrian Health Ministry and other health organizations working on getting a mass-immunization program going, it may be difficult. Since the start of the civil war, with all the insecurity and fear of being killed, over half of Syria's health and medical professionals have left the country.
There are over 4 million Syrians displaced inside the country at this time, most of them living in over-crowded and unsanitary conditions. The WHO is already reporting an increase in cases of measles, typhoid and hepatitis A.
Polio on the rise in other parts of the world
In August, it was reported that polio is seeing a comeback in northern Africa and parts of Pakistan. This recent outbreak has lead to 121 cases, primarily in Somalia, but also in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. According to the WHO, In 2012, there were a total of only 223 cases of polio worldwide.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) working with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, has attempted to get vaccines to those countries in need of vaccines. Political interference has slowed the process. In Pakistan, the outbreak started after a Taliban leader banned polio vaccinations in the region.
Polio is commonly spread through the sewage systems, and is spread from person to person through the fecal-oral route. It is quite easy to imagine what could happen if polio spread even further than it has already.