Help Syrian victims of polio

 

Just when you thought you had the measure of the war crimes in Syria, the Assad regime goes one worse.

The Syrian government is blocking efforts to distribute polio vaccine to children in opposition-controlled areas, who are the most endangered after an outbreak in October. More shocking, the United Nations and the international community are bowing to Assad and failing to get the vaccine to the children.

This timidity could spark a polio epidemic throughout the Mideast.

Two months ago, doctors working in the rebel-held area of Deir al-Zour in northeast Syria reported the initial cases. Polio had been nearly wiped out globally, and this was the first outbreak in Syria since 1999.

Clearly an emergency vaccination campaign was needed. With sanitary conditions deteriorating under regime bombs, the outbreak could explode if spread throughout the region by Syrian refugees.

But here’s the kicker. The fastest way to reach many endangered areas would be to transport vaccine across the Turkish border; opposition medical personnel and activists in Turkey and Syria organized a task force for distribution within Deir al-Zour and other northern districts.

However, the U.N. agencies that provide such vaccines — the World Health Organization and the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF) — will only work through governments, meaning the Assad regime.

WHO and UNICEF won’t deliver aid across the Turkish border to Syrian children because the Assad regime won’t OK it. “United Nations agencies do not provide such cross-border aid fearful that their operations in Damascus will suffer reprisals,” complains Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Medecins sans Frontieres International, a private aid agency that sends medical aid across the border.

The U.N. stance means the Syrian government is in charge of the vaccination effort. True, U.N. personnel and Syrian health workers do take big risks crossing endless checkpoints to deliver vaccine to many parts of the country. But tens or even hundreds of thousands of children in opposition-controlled areas are not getting the vaccine. (Children in areas of Damascus and Homs besieged by government soldiers are getting no medicine at all.)

Recently, I met Dr. Bashir Tajaldin, an epidemiologist with the opposition’s transitional government in Gaziantep; he insisted that WHO’s two vaccination campaigns since the October outbreak have failed.

Tajaldin said Assad’s health ministry sent the vaccine to its office in Deir al-Zour, which sits in a small government-controlled area in the middle of rebel territory. In order to collect the vaccine, subdistrict health officials have to cross a bridge from rebel-held to regime-held territory. “Every day five, 10 people are killed on this bridge,” Tajaldin said. “Some subdistrict employees fear to go.”

Their fears are enhanced by the regime’s brutal campaign against opposition doctors and medical personnel. “The government tries to bomb field hospitals,” Tajaldin told me. “I was 100 meters away from a hospital when it was bombed in Latakia. Many of my doctor friends have been imprisoned or killed.” Only last week, a British doctor arrested by the regime a year ago, and finally set for release after international pressure, was found hanged in his cell, an alleged “suicide.”

In contrast to the government, Tajaldin says that the opposition’s medical network can go door to door with vaccines, the optimum procedure for anti-polio campaigns.

He also claims he got a “verbal promise from senior WHO and UNICEF officials” that they would deliver polio vaccine to Gaziantep in early December. Aid groups could then ferry the vaccine in without requiring U.N. agencies to violate their rules on sovereignty. However, the allegedly promised vaccine has not arrived.

Asked about Tajaldin’s claim, Cairo-based WHO spokesperson Rana Sidani replied: “We cannot confirm that such a pledge has been made.”

If it hasn’t been made, it should be. After almost eradicating polio, it is criminal for the United Nations to risk a resurgence for reasons of politics.

Although WHO says there are 17 confirmed polio cases, Tajaldin says there are 66, with two more recently discovered in Tal Abyad, right on the Turkish border. For each known case, he says, there are 200 asymptomatic carriers who could be spreading the disease. Whoever is correct, the disease has not been contained.

When the world feared a genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, the United Nations sent in food from Chad without asking the Sudanese government’s permission. True, that operation obtained a U.N. Security Council mandate, which it might not get on Syria because of the Russian veto. But would Moscow really nix an anti-polio campaign to help Bashar al-Assad? If so, the world community should mount a global campaign aimed at shaming Moscow — or stand complicit in the coming epidemic.

As for WHO and UNICEF, the global protectors of children’s health, they must find a way to speed vaccine across the Turkish border to Syria, and soon.

©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Why Obama shouldn’t go to Ferguson

    On Monday, ABC’s Ann Compton asked President Barack Obama whether he would visit Ferguson, Missouri, amid the continued unrest. Obama didn’t give a firm answer, but he did suggest it’s probably not a good idea.

  • I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

    A teen-ager is fatally shot by a police officer; the police are accused of being bloodthirsty, trigger-happy murderers; riots erupt. This, we are led to believe, is the way of things in America.

  • We’re spending too much on raising kids

    The Department of Agriculture has released its annual report on the cost of raising children, and the upshot is what you probably already know: It’s expensive.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category