Skip to main content

Syrian refugees in Lebanon face polio threat

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 1428 GMT (2228 HKT)
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.

A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations. A Syrian refugee is seen in the early morning hours after sleeping outside the Center for Temporary Stay of Immigrants on Wednesday, April 2, in Melilla, Spain. The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country is more than 2 million, according to the United Nations.
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 0916 GMT (1716 HKT)
Branded an "extremist" by China's state-run media, Joshua Wong isn't even old enough to drive.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 0655 GMT (1455 HKT)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised political pundits with his rapid rise to power. CNN meets the man behind the enigma.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
British journalist John Cantlie hadn't been seen in nearly two years. Now, he's the latest hostage to be paraded out by ISIS.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1049 GMT (1849 HKT)
British PM David Cameron has had the narrowest of political escapes.
The burial leader. The hospital gatekeeper. The disease detective. All telling powerful, stories from West Africa.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Alibaba's IPO is unlike anything investors have ever seen and could threaten other online retailers. Maggie Lake reports.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 0130 GMT (0930 HKT)
Indian PM Narendra Modi has said al Qaeda will fail if it seeks to spread its terror network into his country.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1444 GMT (2244 HKT)
 Tennis Player Li Na attends the WTA Pre-Wimbledon Party as guests enjoy Ciroc Vodka presented by Dubai Duty Free at Kensington Roof Gardens on June 19, 2014 in London,
Asia's first grand slam singles champion Li Na has called time on her 15-year tennis career.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
Even death couldn't part two skeletons excavated from a lost chapel in an English county, found with their fingers entwined.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1100 GMT (1900 HKT)
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