The officials said that the discovery a few weeks ago of a cluster of paralyzed young children in Deir al-Zour, a heavily contested city in eastern Syria, had prompted their alarm, and that tests conducted by both the government and rebel sides strongly suggested that the children had been afflicted with polio.
The possibility of a polio epidemic in Syria, where the once-vaunted public health system has collapsed after 31 months of political upheaval and war, came as the United Nations is increasingly struggling with the problem of how to deliver basic emergency aid to millions of deprived civilians there.
The World Health Organization has spent 25 years trying to eradicate polio. In recent years, the disease’s presence had narrowed to just three countries — Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan — from more than 125 when the campaign began in 1988. The virus is highly infectious and mainly affects children younger than 5. Within hours, it can cause irreversible paralysis or even death if breathing muscles are immobilized. The only effective treatment is prevention, the World Health Organization says on its Web site, through multiple doses of a vaccine.
While the source of the Syrian polio strain remained unclear, public health experts said the jihadists who had entered Syria to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad may have been carriers. Dr. Aylward said there were some indications that the strain had originated in Pakistan. He cited the recent discovery of the Pakistani strain in sewage in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
On a much happier related to vaccinations is the story from Ghana, which has become a role model in terms of immunization programs. Of course, Syria was doing well, too, before it imploded. Fortunately, though, Ghana is a stable democracy and shows no sign of the kinds of political stability that also afflicts some of its neighbors and which drives a stake through the heart of health programs.