On 7th April, Iraq has gone one year since wild poliovirus paralyzed a 34 month old girl on the outskirts of Baghdad.
The young girl, as well as a 7-month old boy who was the first polio case in Iraq, were both systematically missed by both routine immunization and outreach campaigns and contracted wild poliovirus type 1.
The poliovirus, which typically affects children with paralysis and sometimes death, started in a Syrian community after the virus made its way from Pakistan to Egypt, then to eventually to children in eastern Syria.
Once the Syrian outbreak was confirmed, it was just a matter of time before Iraqi children were exposed to polio. Polio thrives in underserved communities where public services do not reach the people who need them most. To date 38 children in the Middle East—36 in Syria and 2 in Iraq—have been infected by poliovirus.
UNICEF Iraq, along with the World Health Organization and the Iraq Ministries of Health, with funding from CERF, Rotary International and other donors such as the Government of Germany and SIDA, rapidly marshaled their resources and established an emergency polio outbreak response.
By November 2013 the country was on an outbreak footing, with massive national campaigns in place reaching over 5.8 million children under 5 years of age even under extreme insecurity in the country
Through collaborative efforts with multiple line ministries, the first ever vaccine delivery into Kurdistan and intensive ground work with local partners, and despite the civil unrest that engulfed over a third of the country, polio campaigns reached up to 90% of children even in areas where other services could not go.
With the one year mark passing since the last polio case, we can be cautiously hopeful that the middle east polio outbreak is over. However, Iraq and other countries must remain vigilant to ensure all children receive polio vaccine every time it is offered.
In 2015, polio is only found in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this virus can easily make its way into any population where children are not adequately vaccinated through routine immunization or outreach campaigns.
Any lapse in routine immunization or vaccination campaign coverage could again leave Iraqi children vulnerable to this terrible disease. Until the world is polio free, polio anywhere is a threat to children everywhere.
The next polio campaign in Iraq will cover target 5.8 million children under five years of age and is scheduled from the 12th to 16th of April 2014.
(Picture: Polio vaccinations carried out by the AMAR Foundation)