Fears that Polio in Syria Could Spread

Mass flight from combat zones could bring polio virus to at-risk populations.

Maayana Miskin,

Syrian civilians walk past the rubble of buil
Syrian civilians walk past the rubble of buil
AFP/Miguel Medina

The World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the polio virus has been found among children in Syria. A test of 22 children in the Deir a-Zour region of northeastern Syria revealed that 10 were carrying the virus.

Results are pending on tests on another 12 children. Several of the children believed to have polio have not been vaccinated against the illness.

Those who have received a polio shot are unlikely to fall ill with polio; however, they can still carry the virus and transmit it to others, allowing the virus to spread. A high carrier rate could lead to illness among vulnerable populations, including young babies and those with compromised immune systems.

A polio outbreak would be particularly dangerous in Syria, where immunization programs have been disrupted by the country’s bloody civil war, which began in 2011. While roughly 95% of Syrian children were vaccinated against polio before the war, the United Nations fears that as many as 500,000 children in Syria today have not been immunized.

Children who have not been immunized are at risk of becoming ill from polio. The virus attacks the nervous system, and can cause death or paralysis.

The war in Syria has also disrupted sanitation services, creating unsanitary conditions in which the virus could spread particularly quickly.

With many thousands of Syrian civilians continuing to flee to other countries, a polio outbreak in Syria could also bring the virus to neighboring countries.

The Syrian civil war and refugee problem have already led to an increase in communicable diseases, including measles and typhoid. An estimated 6 million Syrians are displaced, whether within Syria or in refugee camps across the Middle East; many of those who remain in their homes are living with a disruption in services such as sanitation.

Polio was last found in Syria in 1999.

Polio was found in Israel in mid-2013. Tests that checked the sewage system as well as potentially affected children showed the virus spreading, although it did not cause any confirmed cases of illness.

The Health Ministry responded with a mass campaign to immunize Israeli children with the oral polio vaccine, which prevents not only illness, but also transmission of the virus. Hundreds of thousands of children were given the oral vaccine.