Despite an ambitious inoculation effort occurring throughout the Middle East, Syria’s polio outbreak has now officially spread to Iraq. Polio is a highly contagious disease that primarily affects children under the age of 5 and can lead to partial, sometimes fatal, paralysis. Global health officials have warned that dozens of vulnerable Iraqi children could potentially be infected with the disease.
Iraq is the first neighbor of war-ravaged Syria to be hit by the crippling virus and its devastating effects. The public health system of Syria has been severely undermined by the civil war ravaging the country for the past three years, leading to numerous infections and illnesses that go untreated. The Syrian conflict has sent millions of refugees across the country’s borders into concentrated areas in neighboring countries, where the illnesses can spread rapidly.
The current outbreak in Iraq is the first time that polio has appeared in the country in 14 years. There was no appearance of the disease during the 2003-2011 period of war that began with the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. The first Iraqi polio case was confirmed on March 30 by Iraq’s Ministry of Health. The infection of a 6-month-old boy in Baghdad had the same genetic fingerprint as the virus that paralyzed 27 children in eastern Syria in October, according to World Health Organization officials. It is believed that the strain of polio that is infecting Syrian and Iraqi children originated in Pakistan, one of the few countries in the world where polio has not been eradicated.
Christopher Maher, the eastern Mediterranean manager of the W.H.O.’s Polio Eradication and Emergency Support unit, said that Iraqi officials had been immunizing children protectively since the Syria outbreak began. It is estimated that there are around five million children under the age of 5 in Iraq. To immunize a child against polio, it takes multiple rounds of vaccine, generally taken orally. Of the Iraqi officials, Mr. Maher said, “At the moment, they’re madly preparing their response plan.”