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The race to vaccinate youngest Syrian refugees against polio

As the flood of refugees continues to wash across the Syrian border into camps in Jordan and Lebanon, health officials worry that the close quarters will become a breeding ground for disease.

Most concerning is the possibility that the polio outbreak in Eastern Syria will spread to neighboring countries. 

Although Syria once had an excellent vaccination program, civil strife there has left the country’s public health system in shambles. And vaccination rates, in a country that hadn’t had a single polio case since 1999, have plummeted to just 60 percent. On Monday, the Syrian government promised to ensure delivery of vaccinations and humanitarian aid across the country, after an outbreak of polio and warnings of malnutrition in areas under military siege.

At a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, safe drinking water is a major concern.
At a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, safe drinking water is a major concern for Mona al Issa and her family.

Medical experts worldwide have worried that the highly contagious and crippling disease might spread beyond Syria to the countries that are taking in refugees.

“We know that Syria has been in crisis for two to three years now, and we know exactly what has happened in other places, most recently in the horn of Africa — that if you can’t immunize children regularly in the way that you need to to prevent polio, then you can’t keep your polio-free status,” said Rozanne Chorlton, UNICEF representative in Jordan. 

It’s not just experts who are scared. Refugees, like Mona al Issa, fear for their children. Al Issa, who has four children and one on the way, is now subsisting with her family in a squalid makeshift settlement in Lebanon.

Like everyone else in the camp, the family has barely the basic necessities and struggling with poor sanitation, dirty water and scarce food.

The situation is “very difficult,” al Issa told Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC News chief medical editor. “The place is not clean — as you can see. Not for the children or their health.”

Al Issa has brought her children to a clinic along the Lebanon-Syrian border, hoping to get them vaccinated against polio.

In Jordan, military personnel meet trucks full of families coming across the border and vaccinate every child. Last week alone, there were nearly 19,000 entering Jordan from Syria.

International healthcare workers are say they’re in a race against time to protect the deadly conflict’s youngest refugees from further damage—from a disease that is normally so easy to control. 

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