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Polio Returns To Syria As Health System Crumbles


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

After weeks of uncertainty, the World Health Organization today confirmed that polio has reemerged in Syria for the first time in 14 years. Earlier this month, health officials reported that 22 children in eastern Syria were paralyzed by what appeared to be polio. And now the WHO says, so far, 10 of the cases have tested positive for polio.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Before the civil war started in 2011, Syria had one of the best polio vaccination rates in the Middle East. But as health facilities were bombed, burned and abandoned, Syria's immunization programs collapsed with them. Most of the kids who've been paralyzed in this current outbreak were born after the fighting began and were never given the simple three-drop polio vaccine.

If the once solidly middle-income nation of Syria needed any more confirmation of how far it's fallen, it now joins the ranks of Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Sudan as a country grappling with polio.

Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the World Health Organization's polio eradication program, says Syria's strong pre-war vaccination programs could mean that only extremely young children are at risk.

OLIVER ROSENBAUER: Hopefully, what we're dealing with is an overall good immunization base, where you have relatively high immunity levels and a gap in very, very young children. But again, that's just speculation at the moment.

BEAUBIEN: He says mass immunization programs for all children under the age of five are being launched to try to keep the outbreak from spreading. The mass vaccination drives will need to be carried out not only in Syria but also in neighboring Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and even as far away as Egypt.

The province in Syria where the cases have been found is deeply contested by both rebels and government forces. The U.S. State Department, along with several humanitarian agencies, is calling on all parties to the Syrian conflict to allow vaccination teams access to the area.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.