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The vaccination story you won't have heard about (but you really should).

A young child receives a dose of polio vaccine. (Copyright UNICEF)

It starts like the flu, with symptoms that include a fever, headaches and vomiting. But it can lead to loss of reflexes, severe muscle aches or spasms, and – ultimately – paralysis.

The polio virus is highly contagious and in modern Australia it’s easy to take our freedom from this disease for granted. But Australians who lived in the 30s, and 40s and 50s, would remember the horror of a polio epidemic.

Syria eliminated polio in 1999, but the first cases in this war-torn nation in more than a decade have now been confirmed.

The World Health Organisation has declared a polio emergency in Syria, after 10 cases of polio were recorded in October. Then, the outbreak grew to 17 recorded cases.

Now, there are more than 60 suspected cases of polio in the country – with new cases being reported every day.

In most of these cases, the children who are affected are under 2 years old – as they have contracted the virus after missing routine vaccinations since the war started. During Syria’s civil conflict, millions have been displaced, and many are living in dire conditions.

The viruses return shows how badly health systems can collapse under the pressure of wartime politics.

Dr. Mohammed Al Saad, part of the EWARN medical team, warned NPR, “It is spreading quickly.”

At this point, mass immunisation is believed to be the only way to stop the outbreak.

polio outbreak in sryia
The carnage in Syria continues.
Source: Twitter/Syrian Revolution.

Mahendra Sheth, a UNICEF Regional Health Advisor, explains that, “With large population movements and the breakdown of regular health services in Syria, additional precautions are required to ensure that children are protected against killer diseases … Immunisation is one of the most cost-effective tools we have available.”

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Saad and his group are planning a vaccination drive across Northern Syria, where they will be immunising children living in rebel-occupied areas.

These children and their families are living in areas that have been almost completely destroyed by warfare. Infrastructure has been damaged; electricity, sewage treatment and clean water are gone. People are drinking from rivers, which can actually carry the virus. Families have been torn apart, and lives lost.

Getting the vaccinations to these children in need has presented a problem, as the United Nations is authorised only to act through sovereign states. That means they must provide humanitarian aid through the government in Damascus; not through the rebel groups, which occupy the areas where these children are living. In November, the Syrian government denied a UN Security Council appeal for cross-border aid.

UNICEF has also faced setbacks in delivering aid, as their vaccination program is based in Damascus – which makes getting the vaccines to children in rebel areas difficult. UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma told NPR, “In the past couple of years, we were not able to reach more than half a million children because of access restrictions … And this could explain why we have polio inside Syria.”

Boy is attended to n the first day of the UNICEF-supported nationwide polio and MMR immunisation campaign. (©UNICEF)

Since the outbreak was confirmed, the Syrian leadership has finally pledged to vaccinate all children in Syria – and so finally some vaccines are getting through to rebel areas. But the virus is spreading quickly, and humanitarian aid throughout much of Syria is still struggling.

We can hope that the Syrian government in Damascus knows that viruses do not recognise borders – and an outbreak of polio will not contain itself within rebel-occupied areas. It will spread.

We can also hope that the political players on either side standing in the way of humanitarian aid being effectively delivered, show some compassion. At the moment, children are suffering because they are caught in the middle of a conflict that they don’t even understand.

They are being denied basic healthcare, because they were unlucky enough to be born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line drawn in the sand.

They are , perhaps, being denied a future.

To learn more about the situation in Syria, or donate to help children, click through to the UNICEF Syria Crisis Appeal.

Does the polio outbreak in Syria concern you? Are you worried about the possibility of the virus spreading to the neighbouring regions, including Europe? 

You can follow Melissa Wellham on Twitter at @melissawellham

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