x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Polio’s return in Syria is another layer of tragedy

The outbreak of polio in Syria has probably been brought in by foreign jihadis and is another setback for the most vulnerable members of Syrian society.

Polio is often described as one of the cruelest diseases – not just for the debilitating effect it has on young lives but also because for more than 60 years, there has been an inexpensive vaccine that offers the prospect of eradicating polio entirely.

Humankind has succeeded in wiping out smallpox in the wild, and has come tantalisingly close to doing the same with polio. But there have been a few small areas, notably in Nigeria and Afghanistan, that have missed out on mass vaccination, allowing the disease to survive and spread back into the wider community.

All this makes the news of a polio outbreak in Syria even more tragic.

Before the Arab Spring, vaccination rates in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor were reported to be 95 per cent – sufficiently high for the disease to be effectively absent in the population.

But now that province mirrors the situation in much of the country: the Assad regime controls most of the main city, but rebel groups control the countryside. In those circumstances public services, including preventive medicine, have fallen off sharply.

Just as with almost every other aspect of the normal life of civil society in Syria, the uprising has prevented vaccinations of most children born since the start of the conflict. This outbreak is the tragic consequence, and it is spreading with the refugees to countries like Lebanon, which has taken the step of vaccinating all Syrian children who arrive.

The individual human cost to Syrian families adds to the country’s misery, but the outbreak also poses more questions.

One is where the infection came from. According to 2012 figures from the World Health Organisation, there were no reports of endemic or imported polio infections in the Arabian Peninsula or the Levant.

Among the handful of countries that still have endemic polio are Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which are likely to have been a source of jihadis who have gone to Syria to take part in the fighting there.

Another question is what can be done. The options are bleak.

Total vaccination is not required. Thanks to a phenomenon dubbed “herd immunity”, only between 80 and 86 per cent of a population need to be vaccinated against polio to effectively eradicate the disease.

But given the present stalemate in Syria, even that modest goal is probably unreachable. This has the effect of adding just another layer of tragedy to a conflict in which the young and innocent are paying much of the price.