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The dreaded return of polio

The World Health Organization has confirmed that polio has re-emerged in Syria for the first time in 14 years. The US State Department, along with several humanitarian agencies, is calling on all parties to the Syrian conflict to allow vaccination and treatment teams into the hardest-hit provinces — which, not coincidentally, are also the ones most contested by government forces and rebels. To thwart what could become a regional outbreak of a crippling disease, both sides must cooperate to ensure the safety of medical personnel and renew vaccination efforts.

Before the civil war started in 2011, Syria had one of the best polio vaccination rates in the Middle East. Immunization programs collapsed, however, as health facilities were burned, bombed, or abandoned. Beyond polio, several other vaccines have not been administered. Any number of other potential health crises may await.

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Most of the infants and toddlers who are now paralyzed — there are 10 confirmed cases of polio, at least 12 others suspected — were born after the fighting began and never received the simple three-drop polio vaccine. Because of the high pre-war vaccination rates, there is a lingering hope that only the youngest children will contract the preventable illness. But this is small consolation for the families affected, and it should be a wake-up call to the adults behind this conflict to recognize the impact their decisions are having on the next generation.

Because polio is so contagious, this new outbreak also puts millions of children throughout the Middle East at risk, as Syrian refugees cross borders into neighboring Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. Health officials are racing to immunize those kids, but a better first step would be a concerted international humanitarian effort to ensure Syria’s youngest citizens are again properly vaccinated.

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