Menus Subscribe Search
oral-polio-vaccine

A child receiving an oral polio vaccine. (PHOTO: ASIANET-PAKISTAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Europe Now Looking Over Its Shoulder at Syrian Polio Outbreak

• November 08, 2013 • 3:47 PM

A child receiving an oral polio vaccine. (PHOTO: ASIANET-PAKISTAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

As feared, the possibility of once rare or neglected diseases slopping out of the cauldron that is Syria is becoming more real.

Last week I wrote about my talk with the Sabin Institute’s Dr. Peter Hotez about the threat that the polio outbreak in Syria might pose to the rest of the world. Today, two German doctors writing in The Lancet say they fear that the outbreak in Syria (and the virus being present in Israel) might bleed into Europe.

While most of Europe’s population has been vaccinated against polio, some countries like Bosnia, Ukraine, and Austria have lower rates and therefore might not benefit from the “herd immunity” that widespread vaccination confers. (If you’re wondering when Israel started having new cases of polio, it hasn’t. But wild poliovirus has been located in sewage in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza since February, leading to stringent efforts to make sure no actual cases do occur.) An influx of Syrian refugees, or people with a chain of transmission back to them, could open Pandora’s box: “It might take more than 30 generations of 10 days—nearly one year of silent transmission—before one acute flaccid paralysis case is identified and an outbreak is detected, although hundreds of individuals would carry the infection.” So far, 22 cases have been identified in Syria.

The Hajj could create a global hub of infection if the Islamic world in particular starts seeing outbreaks of rare or neglected diseases.

The United Nations says more than two million are living outside of the country’s borders already. Turkey alone hosts more than half million, with most of those refugees living outside official—and quarantine-able—camps.

When we spoke, Hotez was concerned that the Middle East was ripe for an explosion of diseases that had either been on the path to extinction or rarely seen in developed nations. In the case of polio, for one, the World Health Organization shares that worry. The agency’s polio czar, Canadian doctor Bruce Aylward, told The New York Times that it’s now urgent to vaccinate up to 20 million children in the region.

“The reality is, you’ve got a reinfection of the Middle East. This is going to require a massive coordination. … With polio, speed is everything—you want to get in there as quickly as possible,” he said, noting that given the civil war Syrian health officials had been as helpful as could be expected.

Amplifying concerns in Europe, there’s not a lot of oral polio vaccine around to quickly redress the issue. This live-virus vaccine is no longer used in Europe because in rare cases it caused the “acute flaccid paralysis” it was meant to prevent; a safer inactivated virus vaccine is in use, but isn’t as effective at promising immunity. And as in the U.S., there are worrying anti-vaccine movements in Europe, although (surprisingly) polio vaccine isn’t a routine target. Pre-figuring the European scare, Aylward wrote seven years ago about the ironic reality that the final mile of the polio fight would depend on keeping people vaccinated for a disease they no longer feared.

Hotez fears that the Hajj—the annual pilgrimage by devout Muslims to Mecca—could create a global hub of infection if the Islamic world in particular starts seeing outbreaks of rare or neglected diseases. Saudi health officials do too, and generally are proactive. For example, they require proof of vaccination for polio from visitors from the three countries where polio remains endemic—Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—as well as some other places with known outbreaks, but Syria was not on this year’s list.

As Hotez stressed in our conversation, polio is just one worry arising from the chaos of Syria:

“If you look at what’s happening now in Syria, it’s not just polio. With the whole breakdown in infrastructure you’re seeing a rise in measles, because kids aren’t getting their vaccinations. You’re seeing a lot of problems with dengue fever, which is a mosquito-transmitted infection.” And, he continued, you’re seeing problems with “Aleppo evil,” AKA leishmaniasias, which causes terrible ulcers to appear on the skin and face. “Now there’s an estimated more than 100,000 cases of it in Syria,” Hotez recounted, “but it’s also appearing in refugees fleeing Syria and going into the neighboring nations of Turkey and Lebanon.” There is no vaccine for leishmaniasias.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.