Anti-polio efforts rekindled in Middle East by U.N. and partners

The United Nations and its partners launched on Tuesday a polio vaccination campaign in Syria, Iraq and Egypt in an effort to vaccinate 22 million children in response to a new case in Iraq.

"The recent detection of a polio case in Iraq after a 14-year absence is a reminder of the risk currently facing children throughout the region," UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Maria Calivis said.

The effort will be the first in Iraq since a case of polio was confirmed on March 30 in Al-Rusafa.

"It is now even more imperative to boost routine immunizations to reach every child multiple times and do whatever we can to vaccinate children we could not reach in previous rounds," Calivis said. "That's the only way we will prevent this outbreak from spreading further."

In October 2013, it was confirmed that a wild poliovirus originated in Pakistan and made its way to Syria. A comprehensive response was launched by governments of seven Middle East countries assisted by non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and U.N. agencies. Since then, 25 vaccination campaigns were completed.

"Midway into the implementation of this outbreak response plan, we're reaching the vast majority of children across the Middle East," WHO Manager for Polio Eradication and Emergency Support Chris Maher said. "In the second phase of the outbreak response we must work with local partners to reach the hardest-to-reach - those pockets of children who continue to miss out, especially in Syria's besieged and conflict areas and in remote areas of Iraq. We won't stop until we reach them."

Polio attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis in a matter of hours. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain. In Syria, 27 children have been paralyzed by the disease.

Risk of the disease spreading remains high, and 21 countries have declared a public health emergency. UNICEF has administered 14 million vaccinations since the outbreak in October.