BEIRUT: Some 700,000 children under 5 in Lebanon are to receive polio vaccines within the next two months after suspected cases of the incurable disease were discovered in neighboring Syria.
“We will enter every single house in Lebanon to provide vaccinations, and we will work on reaching all Syrian refugees in Lebanese territories,” caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said Friday during a news conference at Lebanese University’s central office in Beirut.
Half of the targeted children are Lebanese while the rest are Syrian, Palestinian and other nationalities, Khalil said.
“We launch this campaign today because we feel there is a risk of polio reappearing based ... on information from relevant sides in neighboring countries and from the World Health Organization,” Khalil said.
There have been no new cases of polio recorded in Lebanon since it was eliminated over a decade ago.
Ministry officials estimated that over 90 percent of Lebanese children have been vaccinated.
On Thursday, the WHO said at least 22 people in Syria, mostly children, had acute flaccid paralysis, a symptom of many diseases, including polio. The reported cases were in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.
More than 800,000 Syrians have registered as refugees in Lebanon, with Lebanese officials placing the total number at over 1 million.
Polio could spread among the Syrian refugee children because they have not been systematically vaccinated since arriving here.
According to Dr. Salman Mroueh, a pediatrician, polio spreads through the ingestion of infected fecal matter, particularly through the ingestion of contaminated water or food.
“It causes paralysis that can become total, so a child with polio could lose the ability to breathe,” said Mroueh, the former chairman of the Lebanese National Immunization Technical Advisory Group.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Mroueh said that while there was no treatment for polio, the vaccine had been very effective in reducing the prevalence of the disease, which has been successfully eradicated in most of the world.
He said that children usually received polio vaccines in several doses starting in early infancy:
“Usually three doses are provided in the first year, a booster in the second year, another dose to children between 4 and 6 years of age and a final one for those aged between 10 and 12.”
National campaigns are occasionally carried out to give additional doses to as many children as possible in order to increase vaccination coverage.
For the upcoming nationwide campaign, the vaccines will be provided for free and in two rounds, the first from Nov. 8 to Nov. 12 and the second from Dec. 6 to Dec. 10. UNICEF will be providing 1.5 million vaccines in total.
“The plan divides the country into districts and every district into local units. The local unit could be a village or a neighborhood that will have people in charge [of providing vaccines to residents],” Khalil said. The vaccines will be available at health centers and clinics across Lebanon.
Teams will check each and every house with children, the minister promised. To keep track of those who received the vaccine, the finger of every vaccinated child will be marked with ink lasting for five days.
Besides Khalil, Hasan al-Bushra, the country representative for WHO; Annamaria Laurini, from UNICEF; and Walid Ammar, the director-general of the Health Ministry were also in attendance at the news conference.
Khalil said that vaccination centers would be established at the Rafik Hariri International Airport and at the border crossings with Syria:
“We will be able to directly vaccinate every child entering Lebanon.”
Khalil gave assurances that the situation was not dire.
“We are not panicking. We are in total control of the situation,” he said.
He explained that as part of a campaign launched early this year, 730,000 people, from newborns to 18-year-olds, received polio and measles vaccines.