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Polio in Syria: there is no cure, only prevention

It is hard to imagine that the humanitarian situation in Syria could deteriorate any further. For over two years we’ve watched images on our TV screens of civilians targeted through a myriad of means, and watched casualty and refugee numbers climb.

This week however we received news of a polio outbreak in Syria’s eastern Deir-ez-Zor region, putting over half a million children under five at risk of a disease which can lead to irreversible paralysis and even death. Just like the conflict itself, the virus shows no regard for age.

Syrian refugee Mustafa*, 8, in his grandmother’s arms on the Syrian border. They fled bombardment, hunger and a shattered healthcare system

Syria facing polio epidemic

Heartbreakingly polio had almost been eradicated from the world. The only way to eradicate polio is by vaccinating all children, and in Syria, regular immunisation has stopped for almost three years. Now it’s back, conflict- ravaged Syria harbours all the conditions for a rapid spread of the virus: cramped living conditions, a breakdown in sanitation, and the low vaccination coverage. Polio is highly contagious in these conditions as it is transmittable through infected faeces. Moreover, thousands of Syrians continue to flee the country daily, increasing the risk of the virus spreading throughout the region.

Time and again, our staff have heard from refugees of the conflict that what limited healthcare remains in Syria is overstrained and underequipped. New mother Reem* recently told us of her ordeal through pregnancy, saying that “there were no doctors, no hospitals, no medicine, nothing at all”.

There is no cure, only prevention

This is the most tragic fact of the current outbreak that whilst polio is preventable through vaccination, there is no cure. Save the Children is therefore calling for ‘vaccination ceasefires’ to prevent this outbreak from turning into an epidemic threatening children across the Middle East region.

Refugees cross the Syria border, without knowing where they will end up
Terrified refugees cross the Syria border, without knowing where they will end up – conditions for families across the region are dire. Cramped, and with little access to healthcare

Vaccination ceasefire

Such ceasefires would allow for pauses in the fighting in order to facilitate vaccination campaigns across the country, and have previously been successful in Afghanistan, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, ceasefires can be difficult to negotiate in a crisis like Syria where the parties to the conflict are not always easily identifiable and forces are fractured.

We have borne witness to a spiralling humanitarian crisis, which has seen the targeting of aid workers and medical personnel and a population pushed to the brink, for too long. Surely, the international community and all parties to the crisis can agree that we need to act now to prevent this needless tragedy and protect Syria’s innocent children.


Georgina Sword-Daniels, Humanitarian Information & Communication Team

*name changed to protect identity

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