Skip to main content

Syrian refugees in Lebanon face polio threat

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
updated 9:28 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • WHO says 17 cases of polio have been found in Syria in recent months
  • Experts now fear the disease will spread over the country's borders into refugee camps
  • Medics are carrying out a mass immunization campaign across the region, including Lebanon
  • Polio is highly contagious and potentially deadly; it can cause paralysis

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (CNN) -- In surroundings even dirtier than the war they escaped, Syrian refugee children in Lebanon now face another potential threat: polio.

Highly contagious and potentially deadly, the crippling and incurable disease recently re-emerged in Syria, paralyzing 17 children there.

And as the country's brutal conflict continues to spill over its borders, aid workers know they have to act fast, since viruses can often spread quicker than violence.

Until this year, no polio cases had been reported in Syria since 1999, and aid agencies say the risk of it spreading to other countries in the region is high.

Syrian refugees board a boat bound for Turkey at a port in Kyrenia, Cyprus, on Sunday, November 23. Some 220 Syrian migrants crammed onto a fishing boat were rescued by a cruise ship off Cyprus' northern coast after their vessel hit rough seas in the Mediterranean Sea, authorities said. Syrian refugees board a boat bound for Turkey at a port in Kyrenia, Cyprus, on Sunday, November 23. Some 220 Syrian migrants crammed onto a fishing boat were rescued by a cruise ship off Cyprus' northern coast after their vessel hit rough seas in the Mediterranean Sea, authorities said.
Syria's refugee crisis
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Syria\'s refugee crisis Photos: Syria's refugee crisis
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos
Refugees threatened by winter weather
Bulgaria builds wall to stop refugees

The level of concern is so great that they're going from tent to tent in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, as part of the largest immunization program against polio in the Middle East.

"There are new families, they are escaping from the war in Syria," Dr. Zein El Dine Saad, of Lebanon's Health Ministry, told CNN. "We are afraid [in case] just one of these [families] are infected by the virus, by this polio virus."

Record sum needed to handle burden on Lebanon from Syria's civil war

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are attempting to vaccinate as many as 23 million children across the region.

According to the WHO, vaccinations will also be carried out in other countries including Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.

"In order to stop the outbreak and prevent further spread, organizers aim to vaccinate, repeatedly over the next few months, all children under the age of five, whether they are living at home or displaced by conflict," UNICEF explained in a statement.

"As if children in Syria had not suffered enough, they now have to contend with yet another threat to their health and well-being," said Maria Calivis, UNICEF's Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"The current polio vaccination efforts are a huge undertaking by many partners, but we can only halt the spread of the virus if we reach those children who have remained out of reach," Calivis added.

Tiny Lebanon, which neighbors Syria and has absorbed the highest concentration of refugees - over 800,000 so far, is considered to be at particular risk.

Maria Assi is head of Beyond Association, one of the Lebanese non-governmental organizations working with UNICEF and the Lebanese Health Ministry to carry out the vaccinations. She said "refugees from areas within Syria where polio reemerged arrive into Lebanon daily, "making the immunization campaign vital."

Read more: Polio cases confirmed in Syria, says WHO

Assi said that during phase two of the campaign, "within tented settlements in Lebanon, Beyond, UNICEF and the Lebanese Health Ministry were able to vaccinate around 95,000 children" aged 5 and younger.

CNN accompanied Dr. Saad and his team of medics during part of the immunization campaign, while they were inoculating all the children aged five and under who they could find amongst the ramshackle tents in the Bekaa Valley.

Asked if the appalling conditions at this makeshift camp make it an ideal breeding ground for the virus, he was quick to respond: "Yes, yes. Of course, of course."

Syria's lost generation
Miserable weather for Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees fight to survive
Bulgaria: Coping with Syrian refugees

Here, the children routinely wade through and play in filth - it's a sickening and terribly sad sight. With trash and human waste all around, families here are effectively living in an open sewer.

It's hard enough trying to walk through the camp site, let alone trying to live here.

One 10-year-old boy told CNN how sick he was of living in these conditions.

"The dirtiness all around," he said, shaking his head, as if both embarrassed and enraged, "it's filthy - life here isn't good."

Doctors warn it isn't just polio that these children are at risk of -- they could easily contract anything from hepatitis to scabies to the mumps.

"This overcrowding and the mud," explained Dr. Saad, looking around. "The bad sanitation -- everything is bad here."

Now, to make matters worse, winter is at hand, and the cold is only exacerbating the refugees' misery.

Asked if her family feared getting sick, 12-year-old Maria Ali admitted they were.

"Of course we're worried. We're all crowded together here - if one person gets sick, they'll definitely spread it to everybody else here too."

As the aid workers packed up for the day, the parents who had been worried about polio also wondered how they'd shield their families from the elements; this is one of the worst winters on record and there's no let-up in sight.

But the children kept on playing; no matter how young they are, for them, the harshest possible existence is almost expected.

Read more: Syrian refugees face miserable winter in Lebanon
Read more: Europe 'must do more to help Syrian refugees'
Read more: Another year of horror for Syria's children

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:45 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Pakistan Taliban say the school attack was revenge for the killing of children in a military offensive -- but they are being pressed by defections to ISIS.
A group that claims it hacked Sony Pictures has posted a public threat against moviegoers who see Sony's "The Interview."
updated 9:43 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The gunman behind the deadly siege in Sydney this week was not on a security watch list, and Australia's Prime Minister wants to know why.
updated 4:48 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Bestselling author Marjorie Liu had set her sights on being a lawyer, but realized it wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
CNN's Matthew Chance looks into an HRW report saying Russia has "legalized discrimination against LGBT people."
updated 9:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
The Sydney siege has brought home some troubling truths to Australians. They are not immune to what are often called "lone-wolf" terror attacks.
updated 7:12 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou has taken off after Sydney hostage siege.
Bill Cosby has kept quiet as sexual assault allegations mounted against him, but his wife, Camille, finally spoke out in defense of her husband.
updated 6:44 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
China-bound AirAsia flight turns back to Bangkok after passenger throws water over crew member.
updated 5:26 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
It takes Nepalese eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit about five minutes to change someone's life.
updated 5:54 AM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
This epic journey crosses 13,000 kilometers, eight countries over 21 days. Find out where.
updated 9:31 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT