Polio outbreak in Syria fuels calls for ‘vaccination ceasefire’

Syria child.jpg

European Commission officials have lent weight to calls for a "vaccination ceasefire" in Syria, after the first recorded outbreak of polio in the country for 14 years. 

Samples taken from ten of 22 children paralysed in Deir al-Zor province on 17 October, have tested positive for the polio virus and the other 12 results are expected back from the World Health Organization (WHO) imminently.

Save the Children, a development aid NGO which works on the ground in Syria, has called for "vaccination ceasefires" to allow life-saving medicines to be delivered to affected regions, before the crippling – and highly-infectious – disease takes hold.

Yesterday (30 October), EU officials appeared to echo that call.

“The biggest problem we face right now is access,” David Sharrock, a spokesman for the EU’s humanitarian aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, told EURACTIV. “The funding and resources are there so the appeal we are making is for greater access where a lot of children are in need of vaccinations and don’t currently receive them.”

Vaccination ceasefires are pauses in fighting that have been successfully used in conflict-stricken countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Eleven million Congolese children were immunised during such ceasefires a decade ago, while 150,000 Sudanese under-five-year-olds received polio vaccines earlier this month.     

In 2001, the UN negotiated a week-long ceasefire in Afghanistan that enabled 5.7 million child vaccinations against polio in a nationwide campaign.

In Syria, the situation is considered comparably grave now as half a million children under five-years-old are “at risk” of contracting the incurable disease, according to Save the Children.

The WHO’s assistant director-general for polio, Bruce Aylward, says that polio strains have also been found in Cairo and the West Bank and Gaza, where 90% of water is now considered unfit for drinking. This was “putting the whole Middle east at risk,” he said.

Without vaccination ceasefires, the current outbreak could “turn into an epidemic which threatens children across the Middle East region,” Save the Children warns. Regions currently housing refugees such as Northern Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey are the greatest cause of concern.

"Every government in the region, and every fighter on every checkpoint across the country must understand that humanitarian organisations like Save the Children are neutral," Krista Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the group, told EURACTIV. "They must allow us to move freely, cross-border and cross-line."

"The world’s governments have a vital role to play in this by doing everything possible to lift restrictions on aid reaching all parts of Syria," she added.

Acute viral infection

Polio is an acute viral infection causing flaccid paralysis and death – particularly to young children – and it is spread from person to person via contaminated food and water.

Since the 1950s, when a vaccine was developed, the number of polio infections has fallen dramatically – from several hundred thousand to under 1000.

That is why the spread of the disease back into the Middle East, apparently through Pakistan, has set alarm bells ringing to the extent that it has.

The EU has committed €7 million to the WHO through its humanitarian budget, as part of a broader €250 million package. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, €13.5 million has been given to the UN health organisation.

“We stand ready to do more if needed,” Georgieva said in a statement on 26 October, when news of the – then suspected – polio cases began to break. “We are constantly monitoring the situation inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries,” she added.

But aid workers say that it is already four weeks since the first polio cases were reported in Syria and a vaccination campaign will only be effective if it organised in the next few weeks.

"This cannot be an issue that is discussed and negotiated for days and weeks to come," Armstrong said. "The disease will spread and children will die if we do not act now to contain the outbreak."

Health system brought back to Middle Ages

Commission officials argue that on the broader question of new funds, it is for the WHO to make a request for more revenues before this can be considered by Brussels.

“If Syria’s health system is being brought back to the Middle Ages, it is not money that is going to fix it, but a way to reach out to people with vaccinations,” one source said. 

The WHO is currently drawing up plans for vaccination campaigns in Syria, although NGOs fear these may not reach all affected areas.

“Polio doesn’t recognise conflict lines or borders so we need these ceasefires to reach all children with vaccines, no matter where they live,” said Jasmine Whitbread, Save the Children’s CEO. “This polio crisis is a clear test of whether all sides of the conflict will respect the Security Council’s presidential statement and allow unhindered humanitarian aid.”

If chemical weapons inspectors could be allowed access to Syria, so could aid workers, she added. Save the Children has vaccinated 21,000 children against polio in Syria.

The UN estimates that at least 6.8 million Syrians are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, but an NGO survey of seven governorates in northern Syria found more than 10.5 million people in needs of assistance.

More than one million children have fled Syria, over 7000 have been killed and more than two million lack access to sufficient food inside the country.

European Union

International Organisations

Subscribe to our newsletters