A once-eradicated virus has sickened at least 10 children and babies in war-torn Syria, according to United Nations officials tracking the outbreak.
Reports of acute flaccid paralysis – a telltale sign of polio – began to surface earlier this month in the country’s heavily contested Deir Al Zour province. Tests have now confirmed the infection in 10 of 22 suspected cases, most of which involve children aged 2 years or younger, according to a World Health Organization spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer.
“We will run an outbreak response immunization program, not just in the affected area but right across Syria and in seven neighboring countries,” said Rosenbauer, describing a six-month emergency vaccination effort aimed at protecting under-immunized children.
Polio was last seen in Syria in 1999, but the civil war has hindered vaccination efforts. And because the virus is endemic in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it can easily be imported, according to Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert and chair of prevention at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
“People who carry the virus in their intestinal tracts can transmit it, either person-to-person or through contaminated water systems,” said Schaffner, explaining how polio lives in the gut but can invade the blood stream and attack the spinal cord to cause permanent paralysis in one of every 200 people infected.
“The treatment, unfortunately, is entirely symptomatic,” said Schaffner, noting that the virus usually causes paralysis on one side of the body. “You care for the patient until the infection runs its course. We don’t have an antiviral treatment for polio.”
Schaffner said the possibility of polio in Syria is tragic, but not unexpected.
By: Katie Moisse
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