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Polio breaks out in Syria - WHO warns it could spread

The World Health Organization confirmed 10 cases of polio in Syria Tuesday, a sobering development that shows conflict can set back decades of work that had almost eradicated the crippling and deadly virus.

It’s the first confirmed outbreak of polio in Syria in 14 years, and World Health Organization officials say it can spread. There are a total of 22 suspected cases, WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer told a news conference.

"Out of those 22 being investigated, 10 are now confirmed to be polio type one," Rosenbauer said.

"Of course this is a communicable disease, with population movements it can travel to other areas. So the risk is high for (its) spread across the region.”

The polio virus usually spreads in water or through person-to-person contact. It’s easily prevented with a series of vaccines that can be given as shots or drops in the mouth, but young children are not fully protected until they get four doses.

The new cases in Syria are among babies and toddlers who didn’t get the full course of vaccine, WHO says.

"Given the current situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, frequent population movements across the region and subnational immunity gaps in key areas, the risk of further international spread of wild poliovirus type 1 across the region is considered to be high," WHO said in a statement.

"A surveillance alert has been issued for the region to actively search for additional potential cases."

There’s no treatment for polio, which doesn’t cause symptoms in most people. But it can infect the nerves in an unlucky few, usually young children, killing them or paralyzing them, sometimes for life.

Nearly all Syrian children were vaccinated against polio before the civil war began in 2011. The disease was last reported in Syria in 1999. Last year, authorities counted 223 cases of polio worldwide, down from 650 the year before. 

But the Syrian conflict has now led to a giant humanitarian crisis in which 100,000 people have been killed and nearly 7 million driven from their homes. Two million have fled the country.

WHO and other groups have been working to eradicate polio, which only infects humans. Vaccination has reduced polio outbreaks by 99 percent. Officials had once hoped polio could be the second human disease to be completely eradicated by vaccination, as smallpox was in the 1970s.

War and conflict in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, keep the virus alive and circulating.

“As long as polio remains endemic anywhere, children everywhere will remain at risk,” the Polio Eradication Initiative says.

“If children in the remaining endemic areas can be reached, the end of polio will follow, protecting children everywhere from this disease and paving the way for delivery of other life-saving interventions.”

“Polio used to be very common in the United States and caused severe illness in thousands of people each year before polio vaccine was introduced in 1955,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.