FAIDA, Lebanon: “I’d never heard of the polio virus before I came to Lebanon,” says Hyam, a 25-year-old mother of four from Syria who now lives in the Bekaa Valley.
“We came here five months ago from Hama, and a month or so ago I started to hear about it.”Clutching at her skirt are two small boys – Safwan, 2, and Khaled, 4 – who both got their second polio vaccination Friday as part of a Health Ministry-led national immunization drive. The aim is to ensure Lebanon does not become the third country in the region after Syria and Iraq to have confirmed cases of polio, ending a more than decadelong absence of the highly infectious paralyzing disease.
“They were scared,” Hyam says, as she strokes Safwan’s black hair, “but it protects them from the virus, so it’s good.”
Polio attacks the nervous system and is incurable once caught. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 200 infections lead to irreversible paralysis. Similarly, for every one child found with the most severe symptoms of polio, roughly 200 other children are likely to silently carry the virus.
Before the Syrian war disrupted vaccination programs and displaced millions of people, the disease had been eradicated across the globe apart from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The good news is that it is incredibly easy to prevent.
At Faida, a string of informal tented settlements near Zahle that houses up to 6,000 Syrians, a group of women, babies and lost-looking toddlers wait their turn for the doctors. The vaccine, a small squirt of liquid administered orally, is so safe, easy and painless that it can be given to children the day they are born, although the wails and tears from most of the kids belie this fact.
The vaccine must be taken at least three times in total, each roughly a month apart. For kids living in unsanitary conditions and suffering from malnourishment, increasingly the case for Syrian refugees and a growing number of poor Lebanese, four or five vaccines may be needed.
The Health Ministry, UNICEF and its implementing partners vaccinated 492,000 children under 5 of all nationalities during a 10-day immunization drive in March, some 84 percent of the nearly 600,000 they were targeting. This second campaign is to boost awareness, partly out of a fear that the risks of underimmunization are not fully understood.
“One or two doses of the oral or injectable vaccine is simply not sufficient now that polio is spreading in the region,” said Dr. Hassan El Bushra, a representative of WHO. “Every child must participate in every round to prevent lifelong paralysis and keep Lebanon polio-free.”
Until April 15, children of any nationality under 5 can receive the vaccine for free at health centers, public and private schools and from private doctors. People will also be positioned at border crossings to catch refugees as they come in and will be traveling door to door in areas considered to be at high risk. Mobile teams, such as the one in Faida, will be visiting 1,185 informal settlements nationwide.
Wherever the polio vaccine is available, Vitamin A drops to strengthen the immune system and a vaccine for under-18s against measles and rubella will also be given out.
“It’s a race against time,” a UNICEF worker at Faida who specializes in polio vaccination campaigns told The Daily Star. “There are no confirmed cases in Lebanon yet, but the virus does not need a passport, it can go anywhere at any time.”