Syria’s children at risk for polio

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The collapse of Syria’s health care infrastructure is threatening Syria’s children with infection.

A Syrian medical team that recently visited Deir el-Zour prepared a report on how to combat the spread of polio after the discovery of 22 polio cases in children under the age of five. These cases were found throughout Deir el-Zour province, concentrated in the town of Sbeikhan.

The rapid-response teams (of the opposition National Coalition’s coordination-support unit) conducted an epidemiological field survey after field coordinators for the epidemiological early-monitoring system filed their report on Deir el-Zour. The epidemiological early-monitoring system is run by the coordination-support unit and covers areas not under the Syrian regime’s control.

In this regard, Dr. Mohamed Saad, the coordinating-support unit project manager for combating the spread of polio, said, “The reasons for the spread of the disease are found in all Syrian provinces and are generally due to the collapse of the health-care system, the deterioration of primary health-care services, particularly routine immunization against infectious diseases, and the emergence of (formerly rare) diseases in the form of epidemics, such as measles, whooping cough, jaundice and typhoid fever. All those indicate that the worst is yet to come, with outbreaks of more serious and more lethal diseases. For four months, the coordination-support unit, via the early-warning and response to epidemics program, is following up on the deteriorating epidemiological data in the liberated areas. This initiative discovered the epidemic.”

Saad told Al-Hayat, “Preventive solutions are mainly a basic vaccine against polio and giving multiple shots for all children under the age of five. This is not something the Syrians can do alone. What we can do is prepare logistically and humanly for vaccination campaigns while we wait for the international organizations to provide the necessary vaccine. There are secondary solutions, such as health education, treatment and disinfection of drinking water, personal hygiene and sanitation.”

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Saad added that the medical team in the coordination-support unit “is communicating with several international organizations to secure the needed vaccine. And they are working to prepare a comprehensive plan for vaccination in Syria and in all surrounding countries that host Syrian refugees. But moving in this direction is still very slow and doesn’t match the seriousness of the disease and the speed of its spread.”

According to the supervisors of the program combating the spread of polio, what international organizations should do at the current stage is overcome political barriers and supply the vaccine to the liberated areas via opposition institutions or neutral non-governmental organizations, and not through the regime’s Health Ministry in Damascus. The international organizations shouldn’t trust this ministry. It has failed to ensure the continuity of routine vaccinations, so how can it ensure the success of a vaccination campaign that requires knocking on the door of every house in every village?

Dr. Saad asserted, “What is also required is to support our efforts to restructure the health infrastructure with human resources, equipment and instruments to ensure that the vaccine is refrigerated and provided to every child, and to overcome the collapse of the Syrian health institutions.”

On this aspect, Saad said, “Many Arab and international organizations have offered to help. And now we are drawing a detailed map on how to act with local partners and the local councils. [That map will be] presented to international organizations in order to prepare for a vaccination campaign.”

Asked about the number of children expected to be infected with the disease in Syria, Saad told Al-Hayat, “It is difficult to provide a number. But let’s talk about facts that show the severity of the disease. It can be transmitted from a patient’s throat or feces to a healthy person through contaminated water and drinks. For every child showing paralysis symptoms there are at least 200 children with no or mild symptoms (influenza-like or inflammation of the intestine), and all of those spread the virus through their feces. There are no real borders between the provinces. This means that the polio virus may already be moving to places other than Deir el-Zour. In America, for example, before the vaccine, 21,000 children were paralyzed. We have a whole generation of children aged between one and two years who have not undergone a full vaccination program and are therefore susceptible to this virus.”

Those responsible for controlling the spread of the disease say that the main difficulties faced by the medical operation, at the technical and field levels, is the fact that international organizations are hesitant to deal with the various opposition groups. The international organizations always request intermediaries to deal with opposition groups, even when the subject is purely technical, such as doctors, technicians and experts in the field.

During the past period, samples were collected and sent to trusted World Health Organization (WHO) laboratories in Turkey, whose government was helpful in that regard. Those samples were later confirmed to contain the polio virus.

Polio is a highly contagious disease that mainly strikes children under five. Polio is caused by a highly contagious virus that affects the nervous system to varying degrees. Infection occurs through exposure to the feces of an infected person. Contagion becomes more likely in a contaminated environment or in poor personal-hygiene conditions. Symptoms appear in only one out of every 10 infected persons. Initial symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiff neck and pain in the limbs. One out of 200 infected persons is afflicted with incurable paralysis that usually affects the legs. If the virus infects the respiratory muscles, death may occur. This happens in 5% to 10% of people who have been paralyzed.

There is no cure for the disease, but it can be prevented by several doses of polio vaccine, which results in lifelong immunity, in addition to providing safe drinking water, caring for the surrounding environment and maintaining personal-hygiene standards, such as washing hands with soap and water.

When presenting its report to the United Nations in Geneva, the WHO confirmed the existence of 10 cases of paralysis among Syrian children in Deir el-Zour, in the northeast of Syria. A WHO spokesperson said that 10 out of the 22 children are suffering limb paralysis and are confirmed to be infected with polio, according to laboratory analyses.

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Found in: syria civil war, ngo, medicine, healthcare, health, disease, children
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