The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that laboratory testing has confirmed ten cases of polio in Syria. Another 12 cases are awaiting final lab results. These are the first polio cases in Syria since 1999.
Polio is described by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as
a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease caused by a virus that spreads from person to person invading the brain and spinal cord and causing paralysis.
The WHO reports that just 223 cases of polio were reported in 2012, down from an estimated 350,000 worldwide in 1988. The disease primarily affects children under age five. One of every 200 patients is permanently paralyzed by the illness. In those patients with paralysis, five to ten percent will die as the illness paralyzes their respiratory muscles.
The National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution recalls the iron lung, or tank respirator, that became a symbol of polio in the 1940s and 50s.
Physicians who treated people in the acute, early stage of polio saw that many patients were unable to breathe when the virus’s action paralyzed muscle groups in the chest. … Nothing worked well in keeping people breathing until 1927, when Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University devised a version of a tank respirator that could maintain respiration artificially until a person could breathe independently, usually after one or two weeks.
There is no cure for polio. Physicians can only support the patient while the body tries to fight off the infection. Vaccines to prevent polio exist and have nearly wiped out the disease. The CDC documents the progress
A 1916 polio epidemic in the United States killed 6,000 people and paralyzed 27,000 more. In the early 1950’s there were more than 25,000 cases of polio reported each year. Polio vaccination was begun in 1955. By 1960 the number of reported cases had dropped to about 3,000, and by 1979 there were only about 10. The success of polio vaccination in the U.S. and other countries has sparked a world-wide effort to eliminate polio
Like smallpox, the potential exists that polio can be eradicated forever. The WHO states that “In 2013, only three countries in the world remain polio-endemic: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan..” The CDC reports that “Religious opposition by Muslim fundamentalists is a major factor in the failure of immunization programs against polio in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
The origins of the Syrian polio outbreak are not clear. The area where the illness first appeared is partially controlled by the Syrian government and partially by rebels fighting the two year old civil war. There has been a general breakdown in the routine provision of childhood vaccinations along with other public services due to the war.
The Washington Post reported on Oct. 28 that large numbers of foreign fighters have been flocking to the rebel side, in in particular, the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that have seen strong opposition to polio immunizations have also had strong ties to al-Qaeda. It is possible that fighters from those nations may have brought polio with them.