In a joint statement, the World Health Organization and UNICEF said Friday the largest-ever consolidated immunization response in the Middle East is under way to stop a polio outbreak, aiming to vaccinate more than 20 million children in seven countries and territories.
Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in a region that had not seen polio for nearly a decade, in the last 12 months poliovirus has been detected in sewage samples from Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and the State of Palestine.
The outbreak of paralytic polio among 10 children in Syria triggered the current mass response. The first polio outbreak in the country since 1999 poses a risk of paralysis to hundreds of thousands of children across the region, officials said. Preliminary evidence indicated the poliovirus is of Pakistani origin and is similar to the strain detected in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Palestine.
Syria's immunization rates dropped from more than 90 percent before the conflict to 68 percent this year.
UNICEF procured 1.35 billion doses of oral polio vaccine to date and by the end of the year will have procured up to 1.7 billion doses to meet increased demand, officials said. Global supply of oral polio vaccine was already under constraint with vaccine manufacturers producing at full capacity.
The new outbreak in Syria is adding further pressure to the supply, but WHO, UNICEF and manufacturers are working to secure sufficient quantities to reach all children, officials said.
"The Middle East has shown exactly the coordinated leadership needed to combat a deadline virus: a consolidated and sustained assault on a vaccine-preventable disease and an extraordinary commitment to a common purpose," Alwan said in a statement.
The seven countries and territories in the consolidated emergency response to the polio outbreak are: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and the State of Palestine, Syria, Turkey, health officials said.
The unprecedented response to polio virus circulation in the region includes plans for a six-month sustained effort of intense immunization activity as well as heightened disease surveillance.
A week ago the Middle East declared a polio emergency in the region and yesterday Dr. Martin Eichner of the University of Tubinge in Germany and Dr. Stefan Brockmann of the Reutlingen Regional Public Health Office wrote in a letter to the journal The Lancet that hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in neighboring countries and Europe and polio could silently spread to other countries.