Vaccine drive aims to halt polio resurgence in Middle East

UN agencies UNICEF and the World Health Organisation announce multi-country push against polio

Some 25 million children in the Middle East are to be vaccinated against polio in an attempt to contain outbreaks of the crippling disease in conflict-hit Syria and Iraq.

Children under the age of five in seven states – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq – will be immunised in a multi-country push that hopes to halt a resurgence of polio in the region, and underpin global efforts to eradicate the virus.

Thirty-six cases were confirmed in Syria in October last year, and two further cases were identified in Iraq in April.

The drive, a joint initiative between Unicef, the World Health Organisation and other partners, plans to give polio vaccine drops to 5.8 million children in Iraq, 2.9 million children in Syria and 15 million children in Egypt.

“Tremendous progress has been achieved since polio made its way back into Syria last year. Through the huge effort of our partners to reach children in hard- to-access areas, in challenging conditions, there have been no new cases of polio reported in Syria or Iraq since April,” said Maria Calivis, Unicef regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. “This effort must be sustained and we must remain vigilant.”

Polio attacks the central nervous system, leaving its victims at risk of paralysis or death. Sustained vaccination drives have all but eradicated the virus, though it remains endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Public health officials battling the disease in the Middle East face immense challenges in Syria and Iraq, where children have been displaced by the ongoing violence or may have missed out on previous vaccination campaigns due to heavy fighting. An estimated 200,000 children will slip through the net in Syria because they live in hard-to-reach areas affected by the current conflict, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

“While polio has been reduced by over 99 per cent since the global eradication effort started, the risk of further international spread across the region remains high,” said Chris Maher, manager of Polio Eradication and Emergency Response, WHO. “Closing the Middle East polio outbreak is a critical step toward improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children.”

In separate news, the Federation of Islamic Medical Associations (FIMA) has urged Muslim physicians to join forces to help eradicate polio and improve child health. The organisation noted that the remaining 1 per cent of global polio cases exist in Muslim-majority countries, and called on its members to educate their communities on the importance of child vaccinations.

“As believers in the Islamic faith, it is our sacred duty to take care of our children and guarantee their health and safety,” said Dr Aly Misha’l, former president of FIMA, said “The final 1 per cent [of cases] still exist in Muslim majority countries and, by rallying together, we have a chance to stop this disease in its tracks.”