Middle East polio eradication effort enlists 21 countries

Syrian displaced children line up to receive vaccination against polio at one of the Syrian refugee camps in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, following an outbreak of the crippling and highly communicable disease in neighboring Syria. Lebanon, which hosts more than 800,000 Syrian refugees, said it would vaccinate all children under age five. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari) AP

GENEVA The World Health Organization says 21 nations in the Middle East and nearby regions are jointly declaring the eradication of polio as an emergency priority, and are singling out Pakistan as a key part of the problem.

The U.N.'s health agency's statement Wednesday said the joint resolution by nations in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region have called on Pakistan to urgently vaccinate all of its children to prevent the virus from spreading internationally.

Pakistan also approved the resolution, which the WHO says includes Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

WHO officials said earlier this week that the polio virus has now been confirmed in 13 of 22 children who became paralyzed in a northern Syrian province.

Seven countries and territories are holding mass polio vaccination campaigns targeting 22 million children, according to the WHO.

The health agency says the Syria outbreak comes from a strain that originated in Pakistan, where, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, it is endemic -- and has been spreading across the Middle East.

It says the virus has been detected in Egypt, and closely related strains of Pakistani origin turned up in sewage samples in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but higher immunization rates in those places have helped keep the virus in check.

A research letter published Nov. 8 in The Lancet suggests a polio outbreak in the Middle East could have far-reaching implications in neighboring Israel and Europe.

The letter's authors contended that some countries have low vaccination coverage rates, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, and Austria. If polio were to be introduced to these regions from refugees fleeing Syria to Europe, herd immunity might not be enough to prevent an outbreak, they said.

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