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Polio outbreak threatens Syrian population

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
October 30th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Syria, wracked with violence and bloodshed from a two-year-long civil war is now threatened by an evil more virulent and silent menace. A polio outbreak has been reported in the children in that nation's northeast and now threatens the entire population.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The World health Organization says that the disease probably originated in Pakistan and is now slowly creeping across the children of the Middle East. Polio is caused by a virus transmitted via contaminated food and water and could potentially decimate Syria, where civil war has led to falling vaccination rates.

Twenty-two children in Deir al-Zor province bordering Iraq became paralyzed on October 17. The virus has been confirmed in samples taken from 10 victims.

"This virus has come over land which means the virus is not just in that corner of Syria but in a broad area," Bruce Aylward, WHO assistant director-general for polio says. "We know a polio virus from Pakistan was found in the sewage of Cairo in December. The same virus was found in Israel in April, also in the West Bank and Gaza.

"It . is putting the whole Middle East at risk quite frankly," Aylward warns.

Polio invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. The disease can spread rapidly among children under five years of age, especially those living in the unsanitary conditions endured by the displaced in Syria or crowded refugee camps.

Polio is endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which raises the possibility that foreign fighters imported the virus into Syria, where Islamist militants are among the groups battling to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Genetic sequencing will identify the geographic origin of the first polio outbreak in the war-torn country since 1999.

"Everything suggests this virus will be linked to the virus that originated in Pakistan," Aylward said. "We are looking basically at re-infection of the Middle East. Syria is the canary in the coal mine," he said.

Most of the 22 Syrian victims are under two years old. Most are believed never to have been vaccinated or to have received only a single dose of the oral vaccine instead of the three which ensure protection, WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said.

"Immunizations have started in that area," Rosenbauer said, referring to Deir al-Zor. A previously planned immunization campaign was launched in Syria on October 24 to vaccinate 1.6 million children against polio, measles, mumps and rubella, in both government-controlled and contested areas.

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