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Polio 'adding to Syria's humanitarian disaster' say aid agencies

A major vaccination campaign is underway, but UNICEF and WHO say aid workers need better and safer access to children in danger.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

MASS GLOBAL ACTION is required to stem an outbreak of polio in the Middle East, aid agencies WHO and UNICEF have warned.

Eight months after the outbreak, the agencies are reporting progress in their polio vaccination programme in Syria, but say that health workers need better – and safer – access to hard-to-reach areas if they are to adequately tackle the disease.

Two months ago, WHO’s Director General declared the spread of polio a public health emergency of international concern – the second time ever such a declaration has been issued.

In a new report, WHO and UNICEF outline their plan to halt the outbreak in the Middle East, particularly Syria. Polio has returned to Syria for the first time in 14 years, caused, the report authors say, by the impact of the ongoing conflict on the country’s health system and population movements.

The country’s first case of polio since 1999 was diagnosed in October 2013.

Since the conflict, polio vaccination coverage has declined in Syria from an average of 99% to just 52%, and cases of polio have spread over its borders into neighbouring countries.

“Polio has forced its way back to Syria, adding to what was already a humanitarian disaster,” said Chris Maher, WHO manager for polio eradication and emergency support.

We got to a point where we had to work with very limited resources to defeat what had been a long forgotten enemy in this region: one that does not know borders or checkpoints and can travel fast, infecting children not just in war torn Syria but across the region.

The first phase of the WHO/UNICEF vaccination programme has just been completed, reaching 25 million children under the age of five across seven countries, but the agencies say they need to secure funding to continue repeat vaccinations in the region this year.

Yesterday, the UNSC approved a resolution to allow UN agencies provide aid to Syrians inside their state’s borders, whether President Assad’s government agrees to allow the assistance or not.

Read: In Syria, children swim in craters made by barrel bombs >

Read: How many Syrian refugees has Ireland offered to take in? >

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