Polio Outbreak in Syria Should Galvanize International Community, InterAction Tells PBS

Photo: Patrick Nicholson/Caritas Internationalis

The recently-confirmed polio outbreak in Syria should galvanize the international community to push for greater humanitarian access inside the war-torn country, InterAction's Joel Charny said October 30 in a PBS NewsHour interview.

Charny, the vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, said the relentless conflict and attacks on civilians are restricting desperately-needed aid.

"Fundamentally, it's about diplomacy and pressure on the Syrian government and some of the armed groups to allow this humanitarian access to happen," said Charny, who called the crisis in Syria a "humanitarian catastrophe."

Officials this week confirmed 10 cases of polio and 12 expected cases. All of the confirmed victims are under age 2, said Gwen Ifill of PBS.

"The children are vulnerable. There are 3 million children under 5 in Syria – they are the ones who would be most at risk from a catastrophic polio epidemic," Charny said. "But let’s face it, at this point, everyone in Syria is vulnerable. We’re dealing with a humanitarian catastrophe of immense dimensions."

Before the conflict, 91 percent of the Syrian population was immunized. This is the first appearance of polio in Syria in more than a dozen years, according to the World Health Organization.

"What’s happened is a systematic destruction of that medical infrastructure – deliberate killing of doctors, targeting of medical facilities," Charny said. "And that’s completely eroded what pre-war would have been a very solid and very decent medical infrastructure."

Valerie Amos, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitatian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has called for a halt to the violence to allow for humanitarian access. Charny said this was done in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, and could be done in at least parts of Syria to implement a polio vaccination campaign.

The conflict of more than two-and-a-half years has forced 6.5 million people from their homes, or nearly one-third of the country's entire population. Two million of them have fled to neighboring countries, according to the UN. InterAction members are responding in the region. See InterAction's Syria Crisis List to learn how you can help.

Update: More than 20 million children in Syria and neighboring countries are to be vaccinated against polio, UN agencies said November 8.