Syria Declares Polio Emergency


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There is no cure for polio, but there is a vaccination to prevent it. Image by PV2 Andrew W. McGalliard

There is no cure for polio, but there is a vaccination to prevent it. Image by PV2 Andrew W. McGalliard

In Syria, 13 children have become crippled due to the polio virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that this strain of the virus originated in Pakistan and is spreading across the Middle East. Health officials from the WHO’s  Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office has issued a polio eradication emergency.

Mass vaccination campaigns are in progress in seven countries and territories which will target 22 million children. A broader polio vaccination campaign will stretch across all of Syria and neighboring countries and expected to last six to eight months. According to NBC News, this is Syria’s first outbreak since 1999. Polio is a crippling disease and in some cases can be fatal.

Poliomyelitis Virus

Poliomyelitis, or polio is a virus that can spread person to person, invading the victim’s brain and spinal cord and causing paralysis. Polio is most often spread by having contact with feces that is contaminated with the virus. It can also be spread via droplets from when the sick person sneezes or coughs and can contaminate food and water if people don’t wash their hands, according to Medline Plus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that about 95 percent of people who are infected with polio will show no signs or symptoms. About four to eight percent of people, however, will experience fever, fatigue, nausea, headache, flu-like-symptoms, stiffness in the neck and back, and pain in the limbs. In less than one percent of cases, the victim will have permanent paralysis, usually of the legs. For those who are paralyzed, five to ten percent will die because of paralysis of the respiratory muscles.

There are two types of vaccines that doctors give to protect people against polio; inactivated polio virus (IPV) and oral polio virus (OPV). Since the year 2000, we’ve only used IPV in the United States; however, in many parts of the world doctors use OPV. IPV is a shot that is given in the leg or the arm in babies at two months, four months, a dose at six -18 months, and then a booster dose at four to six years of age.

The oral polio vaccination is mainly used outside the United States. Image by US AID.

The oral polio vaccination is mainly used outside the United States. Image by US AID.

Polio Around the World

Here in the United States in the late 1940’s and 1950’s polio crippled 35,000 people each year. Thanks to vaccination programs, the United States became polio free in 1979. However, other parts of the world continue to deal with its crippling effects. Polio has never been stopped in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, despite continuous vaccination efforts. In Pakistan, officials have reported 62 cases of polio so far this year, whereas last year there were 58 cases. In Chad and Horn of Africa, polio virus has been stopped and then reintroduced – and continues to spread in these parts as well.

Eradicating Polio

The polio virus has been eradicated in the United States, but remains endemic to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria despite a 25 year vaccination program.  According to NBC News, Syria’s immunization rates have dropped from 90 percent to 68 percent recently and children who are living in unsanitary conditions are at the greatest risk, as the virus can be spread through waste, contaminated water, and food.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Polio Disease. (2011). Accessed November 14, 2013.

Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy. Sudan polio vaccination stall gets high-level UN attention. (2013). Accessed November 14, 2013.

Medline Plus. Polio and Post-Polio Syndrome. Accessed November 14, 2013.

NBC News. Polio strain in Syria originated in Pakistan, WHO confirms. (2013). Accessed November 14, 2013.

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