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Infectious Disease

Syrian minister says foreign jihadists responsible for polio outbreak

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Syrian health workers administer polio vaccination to a girl at a school in Damascus. (REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters)

A Syrian government minister said Sunday that foreign fighters who have come to the country to wage jihad are responsible for the outbreak of polio in the rebel-controlled north.

Last week, the United Nations health agency confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria, the first confirmed outbreak of the disease in the country in 14 years, raising a risk of it spreading across the region. The confirmed cases are among babies and toddlers, all under 2, who were “under-immunized,” according to the World Health Organization. The agency is awaiting lab results on another 12 cases showing polio symptoms.

Minister of Social Affairs Kindah al-Shammat told The Associated Press on Sunday that jihadis from Pakistan were to blame.

“The virus originates in Pakistan and has been brought to Syria by the jihadists who come from Pakistan” the minister said. She offered no evidence and did not elaborate on the claim. Pakistan is one of three countries where polio remains endemic.

Al-Shammat said the government has launched an immunization campaign to “protect all children in Syria.” She did not say if and how the vaccination campaign will proceed in the northern areas along the border with Turkey. That area has been under opposition control since the rebels captured large swaths of land and whole neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, from the regime over the past year.

Syrian government officials have blamed terrorists and Islamic militants for the civil war that has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists. The U.N. said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, and has not updated that figure since.

The conflict began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule in March 2011. It gradually became an armed conflict after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. Over the past year, the fighting took on sectarian overtones with predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting Assad’s regime that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group.

Thousands of foreign fighters have joined Sunni rebels in the battle against Assad, while the regime troops have been backed up by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group in the past months.

The fighting has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, driving nearly 7 million people from their homes and destroying a country that once offered subsidized health care, including immunizations.

Nearly all Syrian children were vaccinated against polio before the conflict began more than 2 1/2 years ago.

The polio virus, a highly contagious disease, usually infects children in unsanitary conditions through the consumption of food or liquid contaminated with feces. It attacks the nerves and can kill or paralyze, and can spread widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children. The disease was last reported in Syria in 1999.

Also Sunday, the leader of the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, called on aid and medical supplies to be allowed into blockaded parts of the embattled country, particularly where contagious diseases were spreading. He said it would serve as a confidence-building measure between Syria’s warring parties.

Ahmad Jarba was speaking from Cairo, where Arab foreign ministers met to discuss the Syrian crisis and a proposed peace conference expected to take place later this month in Geneva.

After their meeting, the Arab foreign ministers said in a statement they welcomed efforts by U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to find a solution to the conflict in Syria.

The statement also said the ministers stood by the Syrian National Coalition and its demands regarding necessary guarantees by the international community to ensure the success of a negotiated political solution in Syria.

It stressed that any solution to the conflict in Syria should include the formation of a transitional body that would have all executive powers, including control over the country’s armed forces and security services.

The statement, however, did not mention Syrian President Bashar Assad. The coalition is demanding Assad to step down in any transitional Syrian government as a condition to attending the conference.

The Syrian opposition is made up of different factions, many of them politicians based in exile — the majority of whom are part of the coalition, the main umbrella group.