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Massive polio vaccination underway in Syria and Iraq

A massive polio vaccination campaign has been launched in Syria, Iraq and other countries to stem fears that the disease has spread across borders. UNICEF aims to protect 20 million children during the five-day campaign.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) launched a vaccination campaign Sunday as part of an international response to a major polio outbreak in war-torn Syria that was confirmed last October.

Amid fears that the disease has spread to neighboring countries, UNICEF aims to vaccinate more than 20 million children, including 5.6 million in Iraq alone, over the next five days.

"I appeal to the people of Iraq to join hands in ensuring every child under the age of five is vaccinated during the upcoming April polio campaign, regardless of how many doses they've received previously," UNICEF's representative in Iraq Marzio Babille said in a statement.

Outbreak in Iraq

Last month, Iraq's health ministry said it found a case of polio in a young boy in near Baghdad, the country's first such case since 1999. At the time, health ministry officials believed the case originated in Syria, which shares a long border with Iraq.

According to the UN, 27 children have been paralyzed by polio in Syria through to the end of March. More than half of those cases were reported in Deir Ezzor, the Syrian province across the border from Iraq's western Anbar province.

Due to the turmoil in Syria and the refugee crisis it has created, between 500,000 and 700,000 children have missed vaccinations, UNICEF said.

As part of the regional response, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Territories will also join the campaign.

Contaminated water

Polio is a contagious and crippling disease that usually infects children under age 5 after they drink contaminated water.

The disease attacks the central nervous system, causing permanent paralysis, muscular atrophy or death. It cannot be cured, but it can be prevented with vaccination.

Polio is still endemic in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

hc/ipj (AFP, dpa)

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