The World Health Organization has been fighting an escalating battle to stop the spread of a polio revival in Syria. The organization says that more than 20 million children throughout the Middle East should be urgently vaccinated to prevent the spread of the highly contagious and crippling disease. The campaign will require at least 50 million doses of vaccine for repeated treatments and might require the diversion of vaccine originally intended to be used elsewhere. Dr. Bruce Aylward, the organization’s top official in charge of eradicating polio, said that the scheduled two-month vaccination campaign would now take six to eight months.
Dr. Aylward has overseen the organization’s antipolio effort since 1998. Children ages 5 and under are the primary casualties of polio. The virus infects their digestive systems, causing paralysis and sometimes death. The collapse of the country’s public health system due to the civil war has been blamed in part for the resurgence of the disease.
The original plan was to vaccinate two and a half million children in Syria and more than eight million more in six neighboring countries. Dr. Aylward said the decision to increase the number of children to be vaccinated was made during a meeting of the W.H.O. regional committee for the eastern Mediterranean. The confirmation of an outbreak of polio in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour was a catalyst for changing the original plan. Dr. Aylward said in an interview, “The reality is, you’ve got a reinfection of the Middle East. This is going to require a massive coordination.”
Viral infection experts at the W.H.O. believe that the Syria strain is the same as a polio virus first detected in Pakistan. That virus was also recently detected in sewage from Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Israel. Polio was once thought to be eradicated in the region. Polio has not been seen in Syria in the past fourteen years. Health ministers from Syria and neighboring countries share a concern for the urgency of defeating the return of the disease.