Is the polio outbreak in Syria a danger for travel and tourism?

Polio a communicable disease, with population movements it can travel to other areas. So the risk is high for (its) spread across a region.

Is the polio outbreak in Syria a danger for travel and tourism?

Polio a communicable disease, with population movements it can travel to other areas. So the risk is high for (its) spread across a region.

The U.N.’s health agency says it has confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria, the first confirmed outbreak of the diseases in Syria in 14 years.

Officials are investigating another 12 cases showing polio symptoms.

Polio is often described as one of the cruelest diseases – not just for the debilitating effect it has on young lives but also because for more than 60 years, there has been an inexpensive vaccine that offers the prospect of eradicating polio entirely.

Humankind has succeeded in wiping out smallpox in the wild, and has come tantalizingly close to doing the same with polio. But there have been a few small areas, notably in Nigeria and Afghanistan that have missed out on mass vaccination, allowing the disease to survive and spread back into the wider community.

All this makes the news of a polio outbreak in Syria even more tragic.

Before the Arab Spring, vaccination rates in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor were reported to be 95 per cent – sufficiently high for the disease to be effectively absent in the population.

But now that province mirrors the situation in much of the country: the Assad regime controls most of the main city, but rebel groups control the countryside. In those circumstances public services, including preventive medicine, have fallen off sharply.

Just as with almost every other aspect of the normal life of civil society in Syria, the uprising has prevented vaccinations of most children born since the start of the conflict. This outbreak is the tragic consequence, and it is spreading with the refugees to countries like Lebanon, which has taken the step of vaccinating all Syrian children who arrive.

The individual human cost to Syrian families adds to the country’s misery, but the outbreak also poses more questions.

One is where the infection came from. According to 2012 figures from the World Health Organization, there were no reports of endemic or imported polio infections in the Arabian Peninsula or the Levant.

Among the handful of countries that still have endemic polio are Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which are likely to have been a source of jihadis who have gone to Syria to take part in the fighting there.

Another question is what can be done. The options are bleak.

Total vaccination is not required. Thanks to a phenomenon dubbed “herd immunity”, only between 80 and 86 per cent of a population need to be vaccinated against polio to effectively eradicate the disease.

But given the present stalemate in Syria, even that modest goal is probably unreachable. This has the effect of adding just another layer of tragedy to a conflict in which the young and innocent are paying much of the price.

Lebanon, which hosts more than 700,000 Syrian refugees, said on Friday it would vaccinate all children under five against polio after suspected cases of the crippling viral disease were found in neighboring Syria.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday at least 22 people had acute flaccid paralysis, a symptom of diseases including polio, in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq, most of them children.

Around 4,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war cross into neighboring countries each day, hundreds of them into Lebanon where many live in border towns or tented communities in rural areas with poor sanitation.

There is no cure for polio, a highly infectious disease which invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. It can only be prevented through immunization.

There have been no reported cases of suspected polio in Lebanon but health officials want to prevent the Syrian outbreak from spreading.

“We are targeting around 700,000 children (Lebanese and others) in this campaign,” Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told reporters.

He said doctors from local health services would work with the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and WHO and go from door-to-door to reach the children. Teams would also treat children entering Lebanon by land or via Beirut International Airport.

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