December 3, 2013
By Elizabeth Parker-Magyar and Abdulrahman al-Masri
The United Nations announced Monday it had airlifted 538,000 polio vaccinations from Damascus to the world body’s field office in the northeastern city of Al-Hassakeh Thursday as it scrambles to immunize infants in rebel-held areas who have been denied access to medical care since the onset of the civil war.
The UN airlift came two days after the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it had raised the total number of cases in Syria to 17, confirming two cases of polio in children under the age of two in Aleppo and outside Damascus. In October, the WHO confirmed 15 cases in the eastern province of Deir e-Zor.
“For a polio campaign to be effective, roughly 90% or more of the population needs to be vaccinated to stamp the disease out,” said Peter Kessler, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Amman, adding the contents of Thursday’s airlift, which included other medical aid and equipment, would be distributed overland in Hassakeh province and south into Deir e-Zor.
Polio, which can paralyze a young child within a few hours, had not been seen in Syria since 1999. The disease has re-emerged as immunization rates have plummeted to under 70% for children under two since the beginning of the 32-month long conflict in Syria.
Only one in 200 children who carry polio show symptoms of infection, making the incurable disease difficult to contain once it is contracted in an area.
A child receives drops of a polio vaccine in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. Photo courtesy of UNHCR.
“By the time we find a single case, the horse is out of the barn, so to speak. We have to assume that there’s widespread transmission,” Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesperson at the World Health Organization’s Global Polio Eradication Department, told Syria Direct.
With more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees scattered throughout the region, Rosenbauer says, “this is really a Middle East problem.”
On Saturday, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) called on the international community to pressure the Syrian government to lift its blockades, adding that the exiled opposition group had already opened mobile vaccination clinics in the Syrian cities of Deir e-Zor, Idlib, Aleppo and Hama.
“Syrians did their part and everything they can do to make their plan work, and now the ball is in the international community’s court,” said Suhair Attasi, Vice Chairwoman of the Syrian National Coalition. But in some areas, such as the Damascus suburbs, where one case of polio has already been documented, months-long government-imposed blockades hinder humanitarian access.
“We in East Ghouta are not included in vaccination campaigns,” said Majed Abu Ali, who works at the United Medical Office in the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.
“We have been trying to use the vaccinations that remained in our East Ghouta clinics before the siege, and by what we can get from smuggling through regime checkpoints,” said Abu Ali.
As fears of an epidemic spread, the World Health Organization and UNICEF launched efforts in November to vaccinate 22,000,000 children inside Syria and in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
With no cure, “the main goal right now is to vaccinate as many children as you can, to try to prevent the illness from happening in the first place,” said the WHO’s Rosenbauer.
The United Nations, which only operates through sovereign states, is unlikely to coordinate with the exiled Syrian National Coalition or rebel groups inside Syria but has insisted President Bashar al-Assad’s government allow humanitarian organizations greater access. In November, the Syrian government seemed to acquiesce to those demands, pledging to vaccinate all children in Syria.
“Whatever country you are in, you have to have approval from authorities, especially in regard to health care, to be moving aid in,” said the UNHCR’s Kessler, adding that the UNHCR had coordinated with the Syrian Ministry of Health and worked closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
But humanitarian organizations still face challenges. “Some places get more aid than others simply because they are easier to reach. Our crews sometimes have to cross over 50 military checkpoints to reach their goals, and are sometimes harassed as they attempt to deliver aid,” said Juliette Touma, a representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Amman, Jordan.
“What we seem to have is a very strong commitment that this needs to happen, because everyone recognizes it is not going to stay in Deir E-Zor,” said Rosenbauer.
“Already, it has spread to Aleppo, it has spread to Damascus, and unless you immunize children right across whatever political lines you want to talk about, this thing is not going to stop, and it will spread.”
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