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Middle East

UN launches Mideast's largest-ever polio vaccination campaign

The UN has launched a campaign to vaccinate 22 million children against polio in Syria and neighboring countries. The drive comes after the UN confirmed 10 cases of polio in Syria, the first outbreak there in 14 years.

The campaign will cover seven countries and take an estimated six months to complete, making it the largest-ever immunization campaign in the Middle East, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

"It is going to need quite an intense period of activity to raise the immunity in a region that has really been ravaged both by conflict in some parts, but also by large population movements," WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari told a briefing in Geneva on Friday.

In Jordan, 18,800 children under age five were vaccinated in the past few days at the Zaatari refugee camp, which hosts Syrians who've fled the civil war in their homeland. Nationwide, the effort in Jordan is supposed to cover 3.5 million people.

Immunization has also begun in western Iraq, while Lebanon's vaccination drive is scheduled to launch this week. Campaigns in Turkey and Egypt are to begin in mid-November, according to the WHO. In Syria, the WHO said it aims to vaccinate 1.6 million children. More than 650,000 children inside Syria have already received vaccines.

Last week, the WHO confirmed 10 cases of polio in Deir-ez-Zor province in Syria's northeast. Since the start of Syria's civil war, immunization rates in the country have dropped from 90 to around 68 percent.

"The polio outbreak in Syria is not just a tragedy for children, it is an urgent alarm - and a crucial opportunity to reach all under-immunized children wherever they are," said Peter Crowley, UNICEF's chief of polio, in a press release.

Infection risk in Europe?

In the medical journal The Lancet on Friday, German scientists Martin Eichner and Stefan Brockmann warned that vaccinating only Syrian refugees against polio may not be enough to prevent the disease from arriving in Europe, a destination for some Syrians fleeing the civil war.

Europe uses the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) instead of the oral polio vaccination (OPV). While the IPV is effective in preventing the development of polio, it is less effective in protecting against infection itself.

"Vaccinating only Syrian refugees - as has been recommended by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control - must be judged as insufficient," the scientists wrote. "More comprehensive measures should be taken into consideration."

Among the extra measures, they recommended routine screening of sewage in areas with large populations of Syrian refugees, in order to check for the possible presence of polio.

Polio is highly infectious, particularly among children who live in unsanitary conditions. For every one case, 200 children can be infected. The virus spreads through fecal-oral transmission and in contaminated food and water. It attacks the nerves and can kill and paralyze.

slk/dr (AFP, Reuters)