A polio outbreak is spreading among children in Syria, according to an assessment by the World Health Organization. The disease, affecting mostly children under the age of 2, points to one of the many consequences of the years-long civil war in the country: a health infrastructure that's struggling to function amid the instability.
The New York Times explains that vaccination rates in Syria have dropped since the start of the unrest. That's, in part, because of difficulties delivering drugs around the country to where they're needed. The full extent of the outbreak isn't documented yet, but officials confirmed polio in 10 of 22 sick children in the northeastern part of the country. The other 12 children are awaiting test results. But it's suspected that they, too, could have polio.
Syria's mobile population of refugees makes the problem even more complicated to address. The UN Children's Fund estimates that it's vaccinated about 800,000 Syrian children against polio, with a half a million at least yet to receive an inoculation. Polio spreads through contaminated food and water, and officials are worried that the refugees fleeing the country, thousands daily, could spread the disease to other regions or even countries. Seven countries will launch an aggressive vaccination campaign in response to the WHO findings. Those include Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. Millions of Syrian refugees live in some of those neighboring countries.
Two of the three countries where polio is still endemic — Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan — are in the Middle East. While the WHO has not determined the cause of the outbreak, some, the Times notes, are speculating that foreign fighters from Pakistan-based militant groups could have brought the disease back into Syria.