The vicious sectarian conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq, fuelled by the intervention of thousands of foreign jihadists, have triggered another horror of human suffering: polio, which had been widely believed to have been eradicated in the Middle East for a decade and close to eliminated globally after a 25-year vaccination campaign.The infectious disease, which causes paralysis particularly among children under five years of age, has broken out in both countries, but cases have also been reported in recent weeks in Lebanon and Jordan, which border Syria, and in Egypt, the Gaza strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The World Health organisation (WHo) and other aid groups believe that the disease, not seen in Iraq since 2000, was carried there in 2012 by jihadists from violence-torn Pakistan who were likely infected but not crippled by it, which is not uncommon in places where many people have been exposed to polio and other viruses and developed immunity.
Syria was designated polio-free in 1990 but the disease, that causes paralysis, re-emerged after two years of fighting in the eastern deir ez-Sour province. Officials say there were more than 50 cases detected in Syria in 2013, with another 27 in the first three months of this year. Aid organisations fear the disease could spread because of the collapse of health services in Iraq and Syria, and the overwhelming demand on social services in Lebanon and Jordan by some 2.5 million Syrian refugees. The Pakistani strain has also been detected in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
To some extent, the polio spreading through the region is a consequence of the US war against terror and how Washington’s aggressive military strategy has frequently backfired by bolstering Al qaeda.
Pakistan’s Taliban has prevented polio vaccination in their strongholds in the northern tribal lands along the Afghan border. Between December 2012 and May 2014, at least 56 doctors and nurses, as well as policemen assigned to guard them, were reportedly killed by the Islamists, triggering a resurgence of polio in Pakistan.
The Taliban has long opposed western vaccination campaigns because they believe
they constitute a secret plot to sterilise Muslim children. But they went on a killing spree after it came to light that the US Central Intelligence Agency had closed in on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad under cover of carrying out a hepatitis immunisation programme.
The CIA pledged in August 2013 that it would no longer make “operational use” of vaccination programmes. But the damage has been done and jihadists’ distrust of immunisation efforts can now be seen in Syria as well, where hard-line Islamist rebels refuse to allow precautionary vaccinations in the large areas they control.
The WHo, which now fears a major outbreak across the region, and the Baghdad government are preparing an emergency vaccination for 20 million Iraqi children in the weeks ahead. With the approach of summer, the season when polio invariably peaks, health agencies fear the worst. The disease “is worse than the shelling because it’s a silent killer,” dr. Basel Al Khader of the charity Hand in Hand for Syria, told the BBC. “It’s not like an aeroplane overhead or an explosion you can avoid. It comes from the water.”
“It’s a frightening indictment of the civilised world’s utter failure at peacemaking in Syria
that a disease the WHo and organisations such as the Bill Gates foundation had, in a global campaign been so close to eliminating has returned with a vengeance,” observed financial Times commentator Ahmed Rashid. “Young lives are being devastated in the indefinite agony of war.”
Bruce Aylward, the WHo’s assistant director- general for polio,noted: “This isn’t a Syrian problem. This is a Middle Eastern problem.” The cases confirmed so far, he stressed, are just “the tip of the iceberg”.
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