At least 22 people are alleged to have contracted polio in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, in Syria. The news was reported by the World Health Organization on Thursday, stating that most of the affected individuals were less than two years of age. The number of children under the age of five deemed to be at risk of the devastating viral pathogen, situated throughout the eastern province, is approximated to total 100,000.
The recent discovery of a cluster of children with acute flaccid paralysis hints that the polio virus is beginning to spread through the population. Acute flaccid paralysis is typically characterized by muscle weakness or paralysis, triggered by either disease or trauma of the nerves supplying electrical stimulation to the muscles.
Two cases have already been verified using laboratory testing equipment. The WHO plans to perform the other lab tests, for the remaining 20 suspected polio cases, by the conclusion of this week.
Immunization Efforts to be Deployed by WHO and UN
Meanwhile, Syria’s Health Ministry commenced an immunization push on the day of the WHO’s announcement, in an attempt to curtail the spread of the polio virus.
Prior to the civil war, around 95 percent of all Syrian children were vaccinated against the disease. However, according to the latest estimates, released by UNICEF, around 500,000 children are now unvaccinated against the disease. The news was reported by UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado, who had the following to report:
“Around 500,000 children in Syria have not been vaccinated against polio in the past two years due to insecurity and access constraints.”
Mercado elaborated on the news, explaining that the children of Syria were now at greater risk of acquiring polio and measles. She also stressed the urgent need to address these issues, with UNICEF spearheading a campaign to raise awareness regarding the need to vaccinate children, whilst continuing to provide Syrian children with vaccines against polio, as well as measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). This year alone, the organization has managed to deliver 800,000 polio vaccines and 1.1 million MMR vaccines to Syrian children.
United Nations officials say they are preparing to vaccinate 2.5 million children, and an additional eight million others throughout the war-torn country, to stave off what they consider to be the start of a potentially serious outbreak of polio.
What is Polio?
Polio had been almost entirely eradicated in developed countries following a WHO-organized immunization campaign, which began in 1988. 350,000 cases were reported in 1988, whilst as few as 223 cases had been identified in 2012.
Polio (a.k.a. poliomyelitis) is triggered by a viral pathogen, primarily spreading from person to person via fecal-oral transmission. The virus enters through the mouth and nasal passages and begins rapidly multiplying within the throat and intestinal tract.
Once the virus successfully migrates into the bloodstream and lymphatic system, it distributes itself throughout the host on a sustained basis. In rare cases, extensive infection allows the virus to spread to tissues of the central nervous system (CNS), sparking an inflammatory response. This can cause a relatively self-limiting inflammation of the protective layers of the CNS, called meninges.
In one percent of cases, the poliovirus can spread along nerve fibers, destroying motor neurons of the spinal cord and brain stem. This leads to the paralytic form of polio; once nerve cells have been completely damaged, recovery is not possible, and paralysis remains permanent.
Neighboring Countries Could be at Risk
With more than two million Syrians having fled from the country, since the civil war first commenced, polio immunization initiatives are being prepared for neighboring regions, in a bid to target gaps in vaccination coverage.
According to Reuters, Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesperson for the WHO, had this to say when asked about the likelihood of spread to nearby countries.
“The first step is virological verification that it is the polio virus. The next step is that every isolated virus gets looked at genetically to see where is the parent. Hopefully that will provide some clarity on where it would have come from.”
Over four million Syrians are reported to have been displaced internally, many of whom are living in absolute poverty and squalor. The unhygienic conditions are thought to be partially responsible for the increase in spread of a number of diseases, including measles, typhoid and hepatitis A.
The exact source of the polio virus, on the other hand, is yet to be substantiated. Dr. Bruce Aylward, assistant director general for polio and emergencies at the WHO, suggests the strain may have originated from Pakistan. Public health specialists suggest the virus hitchhiked to Syria, using jihadist carriers, drafted in to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
With the polio virus spreading through Deir Ezzor, campaigns are being mobilized to systematically vaccinate different regions, starting with the eastern province of Syria, and finishing with Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and parts of Egypt.
By: James Fenner