Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Polio as a weapon in Syria

While the civil war in Syria has left hospitals and clinics in ruin, leaving millions without proper healthcare, it also had an unexpected side effect. Polio, which had disappeared in Syria since 1995, reemerged in mid-October in Deir-ez-Zor province, a rebel-controlled area. The politicized lines that the disease breakout is following may suggest that it is being used as a weapon against rebels.

So far, 90 cases of polio have been documented in seven different provinces, all rebel-controlled. Since the war started, the immunization rate, which the WHO had previous put at around 91%, has dropped to around 52%, and the WHO estimates that more than half a million children have not been immunized. Poliovirus, the virus which causes the disease, is highly contagious. Only a tiny number of those infected develop the crippling symptoms of polio, which means that the 90 cases could be the tip of the iceberg, with some 90,000 children carrying the disease.

Now, according to The New York Review, President Assad’s regime may be using polio immunization as a weapon in the war against rebels. According to the article, not a single case has been documented in areas controlled by the government. It contends that Assad has been channeling vaccines and relief to areas sympathetic to the government and denying them to people in rebel-controlled territories.

A recent review in The Lancet of health in the Arab world touched on the militarisation of healthcare during conflict. In most conflicts of the region, including the ongoing war in Syria, healthcare has been denied to opponents. While UN organizations have launched a major vaccination campaign for children in neighbouring countries, it can be too dangerous for healthcare providers to enter the country.

The New York Review quotes Mohamed Wajih, the former head of the Aleppo Medical Council saying: “In some liberated areas supplies to the health centers still existed but nurses stopped being paid, or the centres had no power to refrigerate the vaccines. For many nurses it was too dangerous to get to work.”

The problem is compounded since the regime controls the transfer of aid and relief from UN organizations. The UN rules mean that organizations such as WHO and UNICEF can only work with sovereign governments. This means the government receives all the aid and distributes it in rebel areas through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which the New York Review contends is government-dominated.

Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian-American Medical Association, told Nature Middle East at the break of the epidemic that “the only hope of controlling it is if the UN and international NGOs are allowed unfettered access to all areas in Syria.”

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