* 100,000 children deemed at risk in eastern province
* Vaccination campaigns planned in Syria, neighbours
* 4,000 refugees a day fleeing Syrian civil war
(Adds UNICEF shipment of vaccines, food for Syrian children)
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Oct 24 At least 22 people are suspected
of having polio in Syria, the first outbreak of the crippling
viral disease in 14 years, the World Health Organisation (WHO)
said on Thursday.
Most of those stricken with acute flaccid paralysis, a
symptom of diseases including polio, in Deir al-Zor province are
children under the age of two, WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer
said. More than 100,000 children under the age of five are
deemed at risk of polio in the eastern province.
There is no cure for the highly infectious disease, it can
only be prevented through immunisation, usually three doses.
"The main concern right now is to quickly launch an
immunisation response," Rosenbauer said. Vaccination campaigns
are being planned across Syria from November but the logistics
were still being discussed, he said.
The city of Deir al-Zor is partially controlled by Syrian
government forces while the countryside around it is in the
hands of rebels fighting to remove President Bashar al-Assad.
"Everybody is treating this as an outbreak (of polio) and is
in outbreak response mode," Rosenbauer said.
The WHO, a U.N. agency, said on Saturday that two suspected
cases of polio had been detected, the first appearance of the
disease in Syria since 1999.
Initial tests came back positive for polio in two of the 22
cases and final laboratory results due next week from a WHO
reference laboratory in Tunisia are "very, very likely" to
confirm presence of the virus, Rosenbauer said.
Most of the 22 victims are believed never to have been
vaccinated or to have received only a single dose of the oral
With about 4,000 refugees fleeing Syria's civil war daily,
polio immunisation campaigns are also planned in neighbouring
countries, where there may be gaps in coverage, he said.
Polio invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible
paralysis within hours. It is endemic in just three countries,
Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but sporadic cases also occur
in other countries.
Asked whether the virus may have been imported into Syria by
a foreign fighter, Rosenbauer said: "The first step is
virological verification that it is the polio virus. The next
step is that every isolated virus gets looked at genetically to
see where is the parent. Hopefully that will provide some
clarity on where it would have come from."
Worldwide, cases of polio decreased from an estimated
350,000 when the campaign began in 1988 to 223 reported cases in
2012, according to the WHO. So far this year, not including the
cases in Syria, there have been 296 cases worldwide.
The United Nations' Children's Agency (UNICEF) said on
Thursday it had chartered a plane filled with vaccines and food
to combat the rising threat of other types of disease and
malnutrition among Syrian children.
The cargo, which has landed in Beirut and will be trucked
into Syria, had vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella as
well as 'supercereal', a fortified food for children.
"Hospitals visited by UNICEF staff are reporting an upward
trend in the number of children being admitted with moderate and
severe acute malnutrition compared to two years ago," a UNICEF
The United Nations says more than 100,000 people have been
killed in Syria's 2-1/2-year conflict, more than 2 million
Syrians have fled the country and millions more have been
displaced inside Syria. The fighting has caused a sharp
deterioration in services and infrastructure and many people are
trapped in areas of fighting in unsanitary conditions with
little food or medical supplies.
(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by