Battle to stop Syria polio outbreak

Lyse Doucet reports from one of the polio clinics in Damascus

For 10 children, and maybe more, the impact of Syria's war will never end.

They have polio.

They are the children born in war. All of Syria's confirmed polio cases are under the age of two years.

"It's very sad to see these young children suffering and we know they will suffer all their lives because there is no treatment, no cure," said Dr Iman Bahnasi, Head of Health for Unicef Syria.

Dr Bahnasi saw Syria's last case of polio in 1999. She had hoped this devastating childhood disease had been eradicated in a country which once prided itself on its health care system.

But Syria's punishing war is also a deepening humanitarian crisis.

"If we want to control the outbreak, the campaign should be very short and very wide," Dr Bahnasi told me. "But the real problem we're facing is we don't have access to all the high-risk areas."

Start Quote

Dr Iman Bahnasi

There is commitment from most of the sides that they want this outbreak to stop”

End Quote Dr Iman Bahnasi Head of Health for Unicef Syria
Weapon of war

Under mounting pressure, Syria's Deputy Foreign Faisal Mekdad called in the press on Monday for a televised news conference in Damascus to highlight what he called "the human side of the crisis".

"Syria is responsible for every child," declared Mr Mekdad, who is often the point of contact for aid agencies.

"We want vaccinations to reach every Syrian child wherever they are - either in a conflict zone or an area where the Syrian army is present."

When I asked whether that would mean working with the opposition in some areas, he replied: "As far as co-operation with armed groups and terrorists, we believe they have to accept that this medicine should reach each child.

"Usually we ask United Nations organisations in Syria to make the necessary contacts and we shall help in this direction," he added.

Dr Bahnasi said there is "commitment from most of the sides that they want this outbreak to stop".

But the government and the opposition accuse each other of blocking medical aid and food as a weapon of war which ends up hurting civilians most of all.

Aid agencies have repeatedly expressed concern about the government's siege on parts of Syria under opposition control, including about a dozen suburbs of Damascus. But they are also critical of similar tactics used by rebel forces in at least two areas in northern Syria.

There are reports that volunteers with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, who often cross lines in this conflict, will be able to secure the necessary protection to help with vaccinations in contested areas.

An ambulance crosses over a bridge where barricades and sandbags were piled as protection from snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad Syria's healthcare system has struggled to cope with the impact of the war
Danger of outbreak

The UN is warning that half a million Syrian children across the country, no matter where they live, need to be urgently vaccinated against this highly infectious disease that can cause paralysis.

Tests are now being conducted on 12 other children after an outbreak in Deir al-Zor in the north-east, an area now divided and devastated by the fighting.

"This is a challenge we must meet," says Dr Nedal Abourshaid, head of the National Immunisation Programme. "I want to fight this disease until we can't find any cases of polio in Syria."

We meet at the Children's Hospital in Damascus where some of the children who contracted polio were brought from the disadvantaged north-east, where people suffered from weaknesses in the medical system even before the war. The children with polio have now been discharged.

In one crib, a little boy with acute flaccid paralysis lies crying as his mother anxiously casts a watchful eye.

"Any case of flaccid paralysis in children under 15 is now being tested," explained Dr Salah Haithami, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) polio medical officer now stationed in Syria. This is one of the terrible symptoms that could indicate the presence of the polio virus.

"We need all medical professionals to be vigilant.

"Any single case of polio is a worry for the whole world, especially in a conflict area where neighbouring countries also have weak immunisation programmes," Dr Haithami said.

A Syrian refugee girl helps her brother, who the family suspects has polio, to walk Agencies are also trying to reach Syrian refugee children in neighbouring countries

Polio moves with people and millions of Syrians flee for their lives every day, across borders, and across the country.

The government, helped by the UN and other agencies, is stepping up what was a planned immunisation campaign to vaccinate against polio as well as other diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. Syria's neighbours are now doing the same.

We stop by a government health centre in Damascus that is packed with parents and young children.

"It made me scared to hear about polio," a young woman with three children tells me. "The most important thing for any mother is her child."

And for a nation, its children are its future.

Lyse Doucet Article written by Lyse Doucet Lyse Doucet Chief international correspondent

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