Polio — a highly infectious, incurable virus that causes paralysis in severe cases — has been eradicated in most parts of the world with the advent of a polio vaccine. Yet Syria is experiencing its first outbreak of the disease since 1999. Cases have also been recorded in Aleppo and on the outskirts of Damascus.
Last year, WHO announced a campaign to vaccinate “all children below the age of five against polio,” in conjunction with the Syrian Ministry of Health and the United Nations Children’s Fund. The campaign began on Dec. 6, 2012 and mobilized 4,000 health workers to cover approximately 2.5 million children in every Syrian province except for Deir Ezzor, a region of 1.2 million people that had more than 600,000 under the age of 15 before the war began.
“The majority of its residents have relocated to other areas in the country,” the Syrian report said, citing the outbreak of violence and disease that has caused over 125,000 deaths and displaced more than 8 million people since the civil war began two-and-a-half years ago.
But a doctor working in Deir Ezzor with the opposition relief group Assistance Coordination Unit dismissed that assessment in a Skype interview with Al Jazeera, and said the Health Ministry has not had any presence in the province for months.
The doctor, who asked that his name be withheld for safety reasons, also said the ACU has confirmed 52 cases of polio in the province – much higher than the 15 confirmed by the WHO.
The ACU does not work with the WHO, which can only undertake relief efforts like the vaccination campaign under the supervision of the Syrian government.
Al Jazeera was unable to reach the Syrian Ministry of Health for comment.
It was not clear why the remote province near Syria's border with Iraq was singled out. The city of Deir Ezzor is partially controlled by Syrian government forces while the countryside around it is in the hands of rebels fighting to remove President Bashar al-Assad.
When asked to comment on researchers' allegations that aid groups should have raised the alarm earlier and prepared better, Chris Maher, who is coordinating the regional polio response for WHO, said the organization had warned vaccination rates were falling.
The December 2012 campaign and a subsequent one in October and November of 2013 were planned and organized to respond to the dropping vaccination rates, he said. "In a complex emergency setting, it is not that easy to continue routine campaigns."