According to the New York Times, the officials said that the discovery a few weeks ago of a cluster of paralyzed young children in Deir al-Zour, a heavily contested city in eastern Syria, had prompted their alarm, and that tests conducted by both the government and rebel sides strongly suggested that the children had been afflicted with polio.
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Dr. Bruce Aylward, the assistant director general for polio and emergencies at the World Health Organization, which is helping to lead the new polio vaccination effort in Syria, said officials at the agency were taking no chances and assuming that the 20 paralyzed children in Deir al-Zour were polio victims.
“This is polio until proven otherwise,” he told the New York Times.
Despite the war, Dr. Aylward said he believed that both sides understood the urgent need for repeated vaccinations of all young children because polio can spread indiscriminately and is so difficult to eradicate. Nonetheless, he said, it remained unclear whether the vaccination effort, in all parts of Syria, would be impeded by the conflict’s chaos and politics.
“The virus is the kind of virus that finds vulnerable populations,” he said, “and the combination of vulnerability and low immunization coverage, that is a time bomb. There is a real risk of this exploding into an outbreak with hundreds of cases.”
The World Health Organization, working with Unicef and other aid groups, has organized a plan to administer repeated oral doses of polio vaccine in concentric geographical circles, starting with children in Deir al-Zour and eventually reaching western Iraq, southern Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt. In Lebanon, home to more than 700,000 Syrian refugees, public health officials said Friday that they were undertaking a related effort to vaccinate all children under age 5.
Altogether, Dr. Aylward said, more than 10 million young children in the Middle East would get polio vaccinations over the next several weeks.
While the source of the Syrian polio strain remained unclear, public health experts said the jihadists who had entered Syria to fight the government of President Bashar Assad may have been carriers. Dr. Aylward said there were some indications that the strain had originated in Pakistan. He cited the recent discovery of the Pakistani strain in sewage in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
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