January 7, 2014
In December, a Reuters investigation found that the Syrian government had purposefully excluded Deir e-Zor province from a 2012 World Health Organization polio vaccination campaign, under the auspices that war had depopulated the eastern province.
Ten months later, the WHO announced it had documented the first 15 cases of polio, which can paralyze a child in a matter of hours, in Deir e-Zor. These were the first Syrian cases since 1999. Highly contagious, the disease shows symptoms in just one of 200 children infected, and it soon spread to Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. In response, the WHO and UNICEF launched a campaign to vaccinate 23,000,000 children across the Middle East against polio and across conflict lines in Syria.
As part of its effort, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) airlifted 538,000 polio vaccinations from its headquarters in government-controlled central Damascus to the contested northern province of al-Hasakeh in late November.
Peter Kessler, a spokesman for UNHCR in Amman, spoke with Syria Direct’s Elizabeth Parker-Magyar about what he considers the only way to eradicate polio in the conflict: the immunization of every child in Syria.
Q. Does this airlift across conflict lines represent a governmental decision to allow polio across conflict lines?
A. Obviously, wherever you are and whatever country you are, you have to have approval from authorities, especially in regard to health care, to be moving aid in. And of course the UN, unlike some smaller NGOs, does work usually in cooperation with the authorities on the ground. In the case of UNHCR, more than a third of our aid goes into besieged areas, hard-to-reach areas, and in terms of a cash values, closer to 50 percent of the actual cash value.
I’d have to find out what level of cooperation there was, but obviously we have to work – and when I say we I’m speaking of the humanitarian community – with the Ministry of Health, but you know we also work very closely with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society, which is a very trusted partner operating inside Syria and getting aid across lines.
Q. Why were vaccines airlifted to al-Hasakeh and not Deir e-Zor, where polio was actually located?
A. We have a major office in Al-Hasakeh. That’s one of the reasons. Also of course there were various other kinds of aid on the aircraft, and some of the items were intended for use by the staff and by our partners in Al-Hasakeh.
I myself don’t know anything about the airports in Deir e-Zor but I understand it should be possible to get things down there overland [from al-Hasakeh].
For polio campaigns to be effective, roughly 90 percent or more of the population needs to be vaccinated to stamp the disease out.
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