Polio Outbreak Marks Syrian Aid Crisis

A cluster of polio cases has been reported in Syria for the first time since 1999, threatening to further destabilize the war-torn country and surrounding regions. Ten of the 22 polio cases analyzed tested positive for poliovirus type one, but the origin of the virus itself has remained undetermined according to the World Health Organization.

Since the beginnings of the uprisings in March 2011, about 110,000 casualties have been documented by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 40,000 of whom are civilians including 5,800 children and 3,900 women.

The advent of polio, if not addressed with immediate action, will pose dire consequences for the populace as a whole as it faces a civil war that continues to exacerbate.

“The large-scale implications of an outbreak like this could be huge,” said Dr. Maryanne Rhett, assistant professor of history.

She added, “Unlike influenza after World War One, of course, people around the world are largely vaccinated against Polio, but with regions like Syria offering the instability of war and places like the pockets in the United States where anti-vaccine sentiment has been increasingly common, the ability for diseases we had once thought eradicated to return becomes disturbingly possible.”

Representing one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century, poliomyelitis, known commonly as polio, results from the infection of the poliovirus which is specific to humans.

Even though a majority of polio infections are asymptomatic, if the virus enters the bloodstream, then such affected individuals may exhibit a range of symptoms including paralysis, severe pain, muscular atrophy, and breathing and sleeping problems such as sleep apnea. 

In response to the polio outbreak, “I was really shocked at how the virus spread to Syria,” said Kandria Ledesma, senior biology major. “It can cause really severe consequences because it cannot only spread throughout Syria, but also to the rest of the world if we don’t eradicate it now.”

The poliovirus, which has existed for thousands of years, was nearly eradicated in all but three countries – Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – at the end of 2012, according to a United Nations report. The last cases in the US were documented in 1979.

The polio vaccine was developed by American physicians Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Savin in the 1950’s and works by administering a pathogen (poliovirus) with a reduced virulence to let the body develop an immune response, allowing it to defeat a wild poliovirus when encountered in the future.

The number of vaccinations responsible for halting the spread of the viral infection has faced severe cuts as a result of escalating civil tensions in Syria, leaving children more prone to catching the disease as a result of their weaker immune systems.

In recognition of this decline, calls for emergency ceasefire vaccinations have been vehemently vocalized. Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of the charity, Save the Children, said, “Polio doesn’t respect conflict lines or borders, so we need these ceasefires to reach all children with vaccines, no matter where they live. If chemical weapons inspectors can be allowed access across Syria with notebooks, surely aid workers can be allowed in with vaccines.”

Before the civil war began, over 95 percent of Syrian children were vaccinated against polio. Now the UN estimates that there are over 500,000 children who have remained unvaccinated. To make matters worse, over 10 percent of Syria’s population has fled to neighboring states such as Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan as refugees – making the overall situation even more precarious by allowing the poliovirus new vantage points to propagate again, putting millions of children at risk as a consequence.

The health inequities present in Syria manifest themselves in many variables, with doctor shortages at the fore. In contrast to the US where there are on average 24 physicians for every 10,000 patients, the target killing of doctors coupled with the destruction of health facilities that provide aid to one side of the Syrian conflict has caused the already small physician population to drastically decline.

“I doubt that the idea that ‘my enemy’s doctor is my enemy’ is new,” said Rhett. “The positive side to such a sentiment is the brain drain that leads to scientists and other intellectuals fleeing war-torn regions for those that are more stable. This is, after all, how Einstein came to the United States.”

Rhett added, “What’s particularly sinister about this sentiment is that it declares the impossibility of neutral parties. Where do Doctors without Borders fit into this equation? Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face doesn’t do anyone any good, and I suspect this sentiment will not be long lived, especially if diseases like Polio, which know no boundary, border, nationality or political party, become increasingly prevalent.”

Patrick Fedick, senior double majoring in chemistry and psychology said, “I think it is insane that in 2013 there are still people that are contracting diseases that we have had medications that will build immunity.”

“On one hand, the country is in the midst of a civil war so the parents cannot be fully at fault for not immunizing these children because they are more concerned about bullets and bombs, however this goes to show how important medicine and the whole field of science is,” said Fedick.

Although Syria’s aid agencies have begun setting up immunization drives at refugee camps, the hundreds of thousands of children who have yet to be vaccinated demonstrate a call to action on the international scale to stop the disease from propagating before it crosses national boundaries.