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Rubin: Help Syrian victims of polio

  • This artwork by M. Ryder relates to the ongoing controversy about children's health care.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Just when you thought you had the measure of the war crimes in Syria, the Assad regime goes one worse.

The Syrian government is blocking efforts to distribute polio vaccine to children in opposition-controlled areas, who are the most endangered after an outbreak in October. More shocking, the United Nations and the international community are bowing to Assad and failing to get the vaccine to the children.

This timidity could spark a polio epidemic throughout the Mideast.

Two months ago, doctors working in the rebel-held area of Deir al-Zour in northeast Syria reported the initial cases. Polio had been nearly wiped out globally, and this was the first outbreak in Syria since 1999.

Clearly an emergency vaccination campaign was needed. With sanitary conditions deteriorating under regime bombs, the outbreak could explode if spread throughout the region by Syrian refugees.

But here's the kicker. The fastest way to reach many endangered areas would be to transport vaccine across the Turkish border; opposition medical personnel and activists in Turkey and Syria organized a task force for distribution within Deir al-Zour and other northern districts.

However, the U.N. agencies that provide such vaccines - the World Health Organization and the United Nations' Children's Fund — will only work through governments, meaning the Assad regime.

WHO and UNICEF won't deliver aid across the Turkish border to Syrian children because the Assad regime won't OK it. "United Nations agencies do not provide such cross-border aid fearful that their operations in Damascus will suffer reprisals," complains Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Medecins sans Frontieres International, a private aid agency that sends medical aid across the border.

The U.N. stance means the Syrian government is in charge of the vaccination effort. True, U.N. personnel and Syrian health workers do take big risks crossing endless checkpoints to deliver vaccine to many parts of the country. But tens or even hundreds of thousands of children in opposition-controlled areas are not getting the vaccine. (Children in areas of Damascus and Homs besieged by government soldiers are getting no medicine at all.)

Last week, I met Dr. Bashir Tajaldin, an epidemiologist with the opposition's transitional government in Gaziantep; he insisted that WHO's two vaccination campaigns since the October outbreak have failed.

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