Nightly News   |  October 30, 2013

Polio spreads in war-torn Syria

The highly contagious virus is infecting Syrians due to unsanitary conditions and a lack of vaccinations – a combo that has health officials worried the number of cases could rise even higher. NBC’s Richard Engel reports.

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>>> in syria after all the human suffering from this gruesome civil war under way there, something is now happening that no one anticipated. a polio outbreak. this wasn't supposed to happen anywhere in the modern era . there were only 223 reported cases of polio on the globe last year. it had been eradicated and now this, adding to the misery that is syria . our report tonight from our chief foreign correspondent richard engel .

>> reporter: this war is killing with more than just bombs and bullets. there is starvation and disease that now includes polio. doctors say there are ten confirmed cases so far. 20 more suspected. all in children under 4. it's a sign of serious, increasingly desperate situation. hospitals in ruins without proper medicine or electricity and no sanitation, a key factor in polio spread. the infection can cause paralysis, even death. it confined president roosevelt to a wheelchair. vaccines developed in the '50s nearly eradicated it in much of the world. syria 's last case was in 1999 . this outbreak is clustered in three villages close to the border with iraq. a doctor who helped discover the outbreak told us by skype many syrian newborns in rebel areas aren't getting polio or any other vaccinations. polio is highly contagious and world health officials worry it will spread.

>> this virus does move. it will infect anyone who is under vaccinated or not vaccinated and does not know boundaries.

>> reporter: it can be easily spread by refugees. there are now 7 million of them in and outside of syria . many syrians are only now realizing that polio has returned. the war, the dangers, the same reasons that allowed the disease to re meremerge to re meremerg are preventing medical officials from delivering vaccines. brian?

>> richard engel in syria .