In addition to those cases, the officials said, 12 other children suffering from paralysis associated with polio are awaiting test results, meaning that thousands more are likely to be infected, because just 1 in 200 of those who contract the disease show such symptoms.
“The confirmed cases are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bruce Aylward, assistant director general for polio and emergencies at the WHO. “It could explode.”
The 2 1
2-year-long conflict in Syria has created optimal conditions for the spread of communicable diseases, devastating the country’s health-care system and disrupting routine immunization programs.
Health workers have warned that the unsanitary conditions in which many of the millions of displaced Syrians live are breeding grounds for diseases such as polio, which is transmitted through contaminated food or water supplies. With as many as 4,000 refugees fleeing the country every day, the risk of the disease spreading is particularly serious.
“It’s the perfect storm into which to drop the polio virus,” Aylward said. “This isn’t a Syrian problem. This is a Middle Eastern problem, which is going to require a massive multi-country response.”
That response is already underway. Seven countries in the region, including Syria and neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, have launched emergency programs to vaccinate 20 million children over the next two months, with follow-up rounds in the most at-risk areas into the new year, he said.
The outbreak marks a setback in the campaign to eradicate polio worldwide. The disease paralyzed 1,000 children a day when the global effort to stamp it out, led by the WHO, the Rotary Foundation and UNICEF, began 25 years ago. Despite the more than 99 percent drop in cases, the final push has proved challenging.
The disease, which usually affects children younger than 5, can cause permanent paralysis within hours. Some cases result in death as respiratory muscles freeze up. There is no known cure.
The cases confirmed in Syria are the first in the country in 14 years. Most involve children younger than 2, born after the conflict began in early 2011 and only partially vaccinated or not vaccinated at all.
The immunization rate in the country, which stood at 91 percent in 2010, has plummeted to 68 percent today, according to the WHO, amid a war in which health facilities have been targeted.
Doctors and health-care workers have fled the country in massive numbers, and those who remain work under threat and without supplies as combatants on both sides have taken over or destroyed hospitals, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in an interview in Washington on Monday.