BEIRUT -- A cluster of 10 young Syrian children has been infected with polio, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, sparking fears of a major regional outbreak amid mass migration and the collapse of Syria's health services under the pressures of civil war.
WHO officials warned that there is a significant risk of the highly infectious disease spreading after the cases were confirmed in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. Twelve more children suspected to be suffering from the virus are awaiting test results.
In response to the outbreak, seven countries in the region -- including Syria and its neighbors Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon -- have announced that they are launching emergency vaccination programs over the next three weeks to cover 20 million children in a six-month period, the WHO said.
The war in Syria has created optimal conditions for the spread of communicable diseases. The country's health care system has been devastated by the 21/2-year-long conflict, with routine immunization programs disrupted amid the violence.
Health workers have warned that the unsanitary conditions in which many of the millions of displaced live are breeding grounds for diseases such as polio, which is spread through contaminated food or water supplies. With as many as 4,000 refugees fleeing the country every day, the risk of the disease spreading is particularly serious.
Destruction of water-treatment plants, electric power plants and other infrastructure has left Syrians "on average with only one-third the daily water" available to them before the conflict, much of it contaminated, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in an interview in Washington on Monday.
Doctors and health care workers have fled the country in massive numbers, Ms. Amos said, while those who remain operate under threat and without supplies, as combatants on both sides have taken over or destroyed hospitals.
Ms. Amos said that at least 2,000 different groups are fighting in Syria, and that U.N. humanitarian workers have been unable to reach nearly 3 million Syrians in need because they are prevented by government or opposition checkpoints from traveling to some areas by road. More than 300,000 of those in need are in what Ms. Amos called "besieged communities," occupied by combatants from one side or the other who stop civilians from leaving and block the entry of food and medical care.
Polio, which usually affects children younger than 5, can cause permanent paralysis within hours. Some cases result in death as breathing muscles freeze up. There is no known cure.