A young Syrian refugee boy in Lebanon whose family suspects has polio (Photo: REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi)
Before the onset of civil war in 2011, 91 per cent of Syria's children were vaccinated against polio. But today, the World Health Organization announced that there were 10 confirmed cases of the deadly disease in the country, the first such outbreak in 14 years, the BBC reports.
Officials are awaiting lab tests on another 12 suspected cases of the disease, which was found in the northeast region of the country. According to the WHO, immunization rates in children dropped from 91 per cent down to 68 per cent after the outbreak of war, and indeed, most of these new cases are in individuals under the age of two who the agency says were "un- or under-immunized."
The WHO also cautions that due to the frequent and large-scale movement of people displaced by the fighting, "the risk of further international spread of wild poliovirus type 1 across the region is considered to be high."
CBC News's Sasa Petricic reports that the effects of the war go beyond the depressed immunization rates. "There are many refugees inside the country itself who don't have access to clean drinking water or to fresh food, and that is exactly how polio is transmitted," he said. The polio virus is most commonly transmitted through the so-called "fecal-oral route," when someone is exposed to contaminated food or water. Although it can also be transmitted directly from person to person, that is much less common.
In response to the threat of a further polio outbreak in Syria, the World Health Organization and UNICEF are deploying a large-scale immunization campaign targeted at 1.6 million children, who will also receive vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella. The campaign is expected to take place in areas controlled by both the Syrian government and rebel forces.
"Vaccinations and immunizations have absolutely no political content, they have no relationship to any military issues and therefore there is every reason ... [to] believe we will gain access into these communities," UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake told AP.
The outbreak's confirmation comes less than a week after the Global Polio Eradication Initiative's World Polio Day. At the time, the organization reported that the last three countries where polio is endemic, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, had seen their infection rates drop by 40 per cent over the last year.
The last major polio epidemic in Canada occurred in 1959, and saw nearly 2,000 Canadians paralyzed by the disease, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Canada was certified polio-free in September, 1994.