A first batch of COVID-19 vaccine doses was expected to arrive on Wednesday in war-torn northwestern Syria, where millions of people live in dire humanitarian conditions, a United Nations official said.
The 53,800 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were dispatched to the rebel-dominated region as part of the Covax facility, which ensures the world’s poorest economies get access to jabs for free.
“Once the vaccines arrive, we are prepared to start vaccination to priority groups through our implementing partners,” said Mahmoud Daher, a senior official with the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO).
The delivery will be the first to Syria as part of the Covax programme, which has already sent vaccine doses to more than 100 different territories worldwide.
The vaccine doses are intended for the extended northwestern Syrian region, which includes the rebel-held Idlib enclave.
The first categories of people to be vaccinated in the coming days in the Idlib region will be medical personnel involved in the battle against the pandemic and first responders.
The next group will be people above the age of 60, followed by people from younger age groups with chronic diseases, said Daher, who is based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.
Much of the Idlib enclave, is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an armed group that includes ex-members of Syria’s former al-Qaeda franchise.
Syria’s weak healthcare system has been decimated by nearly 10 years of war that has displaced millions of people and spawned rampant poverty. A large number of medical facilities and hospitals have been put out of service in Idlib alone, home to more than three million people – most of whom live in overcrowded displacement camps.
Other regions of Syria will also receive vaccine doses through Covax, under which 92 countries are eligible.
Imad Zahran, a media officer for the Idlib region’s health department, told AFP news agency that the vaccination campaign was expected to begin early next month and would last approximately three weeks.
Meanwhile, the White Helmets or Syrian Civil Defence – a volunteer search-and-rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria – have been carrying out sessions among children and teachers to raise awareness about the nature of the virus, as well as its symptoms and preventive measures.
White Helmets volunteers continue their awareness sessions for children and teachers focused on #COVID19 in schools in northwestern #Syria. The sessions include education on dangers and sources of virus infection and hygiene practices to prevent the spread. pic.twitter.com/YPvhdbGeGH
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 20, 2021
According to the WHO, a separate 912,000 doses have been allocated to Syria for a first phase of vaccination in regime-controlled and semi-autonomous Kurdish areas.
The aim is to vaccinate 20 percent of the population by year’s end.
Vaccination for health workers has started in government-controlled areas but not with doses received as part of the Covax programme.
The official COVID-19 death toll in Syria is low compared with some other countries in the region but credible data collection across the conflict-ravaged country is almost impossible.
Syria’s war has killed more than 388,000 people since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.