One result of Syria's war is an outbreak of polio

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". The war in Syria has left the country's healthcare system crumbling. There are shortages of facilities, doctors, and medications. And now the World Health Organization has confirmed ten cases of polio in the country. It's the first outbreak there in fourteen years and it's raised alarms and now the World Health Organization has set up an outbreak response planning to immunize all children. Oliver Rosenbauer is a spokesman for the organization. He's in Geneva. Now, I gather this outbreak happened in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour. How was it discovered?

Oliver Rosenbauer: Physically there is, as part of disease surveillance that has been set up over the past two years using various sentinel sites and health centers around the country to look for diseases, in particular communicable diseases. So we received reports about ten days ago of a cluster of twenty-two cases which looked suspiciously as they were polio. And so we've now received laboratory confirmation that indeed ten of those cases are due to polio.

Werman: Right. So ten cases. I don't know if that is a big outbreak. I mean how serious would you assess this?

Rosenbauer: It's certainly very alarming and concerning. Polio is a very devastating and very dangerous disease and the problem is that it can spread very silently for a long time before it's detected. So we can't assume that it's only going to affect that particular area. So the outbreak response that's now being planned is much, much broader than just that particular region that's where the cases are confirmed.

Werman: Right. And what is that outbreak response?

Rosenbauer: Basically because there is no cure for polio, the only thing that you can do is you can make sure that your children are vaccinated. Children under the age of five year are those who are most at risk, so that's what you have to do. You have to vaccinate as many of them as you can in order to stop this virus from spreading further and to stop more cases from occurring.

Werman: And remind us, Oliver, what happens when you get polio. It's contagious, right?

Rosenbauer: It's a contagious disease caused by a virus and and it's a very devastating and painful disease. The primary symptoms, basically paralysis usually in the legs or arms. The paralysis is for life, contrary to popular belief. There is no cure for polio, so that's why immunization is so important.

Werman: So with the war raging on, what are the hopes of getting this outbreak under control?

Rosenbauer: I think it's going to be very, very challenging of course to operate and run immunization campaigns in such settings. But we've seen from other areas with similar challenges that it can be done. This year, we were also having an outbreak in the Horn of Africa centered around Somalia. And the situation is not completely the same of course, but they have similar challenges there and they're running a very comprehensive outbreak response and we're seeing that the cases are starting to decline very, very rapidly.

Werman: You and the WHO are certainly in the spotlight today. Did you ever imagine that in 2013 you would be doing interviews about polio?

Rosenbauer: I think one thing that this very clearly shows is the need to eradicate this disease once and for all. There are three countries in the world that are still endemic - Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And if you like that's where the fire is. It's from there that you will always have spread of the virus into polio-free areas. It really underscored the importance of finishing eradication in those remaining endemic areas. Otherwise you're always going to run that risk that polio comes back to polio-free areas anywhere.

Werman: Oliver Rosenbauer with the World Health Organization in Geneva. Thank you.

Rosenbauer: Thank you very much.

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