Twenty-two people are suspected of contracting polio in Syria, the World Health Organization says. If confirmed, this would be the first outbreak of the virus in Syria in 14 years.
According to Reuters, the people -- mostly children under age 2 -- in Syria’s eastern province of Deir al-Zor have developed acute flaccid paralysis, which WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbaur describes as a symptom of polio. WHO officials are already treating the case as polio.
"There is a cluster of 22 acute flaccid paralysis cases that is being investigated in that area," Rosenbauer told Reuters. "Everybody is treating this as an outbreak [of polio] and is in outbreak response mode."
The United Nations health agency has performed initial tests on two of the 22 cases, which have both tested positive for polio. WHO is awaiting confirmation from a laboratory in Tunis, but Rosenbaur says it is “very, very likely” that the test will confirm the polio outbreak.
The disease, which cripples its victims, has not been seen in Syria since 1999. Currently, there is no cure for polio. It must instead by treated by immunization before a patient is infected. Typically, polio vaccines are applied in three doses.
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WHO suspects that the 22 patients have either never been vaccinated for polio or instead only received one of the three required immunization doses. Their infection leaves some 100,000 children under 5 at risk of polio in the war-torn Dier al-Zor province.
"The main concern right now is to quickly launch an immunization response," Rosenbauer said.
Rosenbauer says that the WHO is currently unaware where the virus originated, though he speculates that it may have been carried by a foreign combatant coming to fight in the Syrian Civil War.
"The first step is virological verification that it is the polio virus," Rosenbauer says. "The next step is that every isolated virus gets looked at genetically to see where is the parent. Hopefully that will provide some clarity on where it would have come from.”
Over the past 25 years, polio cases have dropped dramatically wordwide, from 350,000 cases in 1988 to just 223 cases in 2012. This year, there have been 296 confirmed cases of polio, not including the unconfirmed Syrian patients.