After 14 years, polio has made a comeback in Syria, courtesy of a ban on vaccination in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Activists in the besieged region of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, warned that children in Ghouta are facing a new wave of illness brought on by the lack of proper vaccination. The #LifeVaccines campaign has been launched by some activists on social media platforms to bring international attention to the dire situation.
In October 2013, the first case of polio in Syria in 14 years was diagnosed in Deir Az Zor. There was little doubt that the ongoing conflict was a primary factor for its reappearance. The prevention of life-saving vaccinations and antibiotics from reaching children in need of their routine immunisations eventually led to a spread of the disease.
Six months after the first reported case, 36 children across five Syrian provinces were left paralysed from polio, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Large-scale efforts by WHO to control the disease were successful. Now, however, the threat that polio and other illnesses could return to Eastern Ghouta is real and will affect the lives of the children, who constitute 40 percent of the Ghouta’s overall population.
The Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in East Ghouta (URMBEG) launched a parallel campaign titled #من_حقي_أن _أتلقح campaign, which means: “It’s my right to be vaccinated”.
“The prevention of the vaccines from reaching the area is just another weapon of war by the regime to increase pressure on the besieged area,” Mahmoud al-Sheikh, the administrative director of URMBEG, told Al Jazeera.
On February 3, a joint statement was issued by URMBEG and the interim government’s Health Directorate of Damascus and Rural Damascus on the critical scenarios of missed childhood vaccines, shedding light on the rising plight threatening to grow into a large-scale epidemic of what were once preventable diseases.
If the children remain unvaccinated, there's a real threat of an international epidemic if the diseases spread.
The statement, in Arabic, was directed at the WHO, the United Nations, and other international bodies, calling for putting pressure on the Syrian regime to allow secure entry of routine and preventive vaccines for children.
The report added that around 41,000 children are affected, nearly 15,200 of whom are under the age of two.
Journalist and #LifeVaccines activist Tariq Khawam, says, the campaign seeks to “give a voice to the people” through its efforts, and the sole purpose is to avoid a potential humanitarian catastrophe – the effects of which will not be grasped until years later. “Attention must be brought to this,” he adds.
According to Ward Mardini, a local journalist in the besieged areas, the Syrian Ministry of Health and WHO are the only bodies authorised to receive and allocate the vaccinations.
“The transfer of these vaccinations into the besieged areas of the Ghouta are strictly limited to internationally-recognised bodies, which in this case would be the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), operated by the regime,” Mardini told Al Jazeera.
But despite this, there have been consistent restrictions and difficulties preventing these convoys from reaching the besieged area. Sheikh adds that the last convoy to gain access into the Ghouta was on July 23, 2015, where doses were received by the Directorate of Health of Damascus.
WHO had overseen the entry and distribution of the vaccines into Syria, but the SARC, a neutral body, served as an intermediary for the entry of the medicines into the besieged areas. Sheikh explained that the last convoy, which included some medical supplies in addition to routine vaccinations, did not cover all the children in need.
The last batch, confirms Mardini, had only succeeded in administering to some 20 percent of children under the age of two, and less than 55 percent total of children under five, implying that there are children who have gone even longer without proper immunisations.
There have been 6,700 births over the past seven months, Sheikh told Al Jazeera. Those infants have not received any doses of routine vaccinations administered upon birth.
Polio, smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and other highly contagious diseases risk re-emergence in the Eastern Ghouta, potentially causing an epidemic.
Most recently, according to Sheikh, cases of tuberculosis in the Eastern Ghouta have emerged and a total of 140 patients are being handled by URMBEG, though their medical supplies are dwindling and are barely sufficient to treat half of the cases.
“Infectious diseases do not recognise borders, and everyone – not just children – is at risk, whether in the besieged areas or in areas where the regime is present,” Khawam says.
“If the children remain unvaccinated, there’s a real threat of an international epidemic if the diseases spread.”
With additional reporting by Ward Mardini