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Syrian civil war heightens polio risk [Commentary]

In 1951, my Great Uncle William Kirkpatrick, who had polio, became the first person to be injected with Jonas Salk's experimental polio vaccine. The vaccine would become Salk's gift to the world, but at the time it was untested and undergoing development at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

At 16 years old, Bill was young and athletic; he had hoped to play varsity football and spent much of his time training for upcoming tryouts. Then one morning he was found in bed, immobile and barely breathing.

Uncle Bill knew that acting as the first experimental subject was risky and that he would see little, if any, benefit from the vaccine. But Bill stepped up because he hoped that Salk's work would one day spare the world the misery of polio. And it largely has. With the exception of Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, polio has been nearly eradicated. But now the World Health Organization reports 17 confirmed cases of polio in Syria after discovering a number of paralyzed children. I imagine that perhaps these kids were found like my Uncle Bill: stiff as a board and struggling to breathe.

The violent civil war in Syria has put its population at acute risk for a large polio outbreak. The collapse of the country's health system and the movement of large portions of the population compound the problem. Approximately 5 million people are currently displaced within the country, and two million more — half of them children — are refugees. With so many people fleeing the fighting, the outbreak threatens not just Syria but also its neighbors.

Polio is just another addition to the long litany of horrors that civilians in Syria face as a result of the civil war. It is a country whose civilian population endures a humanitarian crisis that grows more terrible by the day. As a recent report of the United Nations Human Rights Council notes, both the rebels and the Assad regime are guilty of war crimes. These include murder, extrajudicial executions, hostage-taking, indiscriminate shelling of civilian population centers and torture. The use of rape by government forces and the rebels' use of child soldiers make the report read like a description of the most unspeakable evils imaginable. Now we can add the scourge of polio to the list.

It is important to note that polio largely affects the most vulnerable members of the population: children younger than five. The pain can be agonizing. My uncle described it as akin to "someone taking a sledgehammer and beating it against your spine." Death can result from paralysis of the breathing muscles, and those lucky enough to survive are often rendered irreversibly paralyzed. That is what happened to my Uncle Bill.

The World Health Organization has declared a polio emergency in Syria and says it continues to implement a "comprehensive response across the region," with seven countries and territories "holding mass polio vaccination campaigns targeting 22 million children."

WHO and UNICEF say they're committed to vaccinating all Syrian children, no matter where they live, but the war is making that difficult, contributing to frequent population movement and the risk of further polio spread.

This war has to stop. A negotiated settlement is the only solution. All parties must collectively push for real, fruitful gains at the Geneva II peace talks next month. Both President Bashar Assad and the rebels need to make it happen. The people of Syria deserve better.

Jesse Kirkpatrick is a resident research fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Naval Academy. His email is kirkpatrick29@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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