WHO supports large-scale polio and measles vaccination campaigns in northern Syria

Syria Immunization Group

A vaccination campaign has been launched in northern Syria aimed at immunizing hundreds of thousands of children against polio, as WHO health partners simultaneously carry out measles vaccinations in the region’s displacement camps, where measles cases are rising.

Coordinated out of Gaziantep, Turkey, nearly 1200 vaccination teams, supported and trained by WHO and the Syria Immunization Group, are fanning out across Idleb and parts of Aleppo, Homs and Hama for the first of 2 rounds of a polio vaccination campaign targeting 764 550 children under the age of 5. The children are receiving oral polio vaccine (bOPV) as well as vitamin A, which boosts their immunity and ability to resist infectious diseases.

Since WHO declared an outbreak of polio in eastern Syria about a year ago, 74 cases have been confirmed there. The last diagnosis of the highly contagious and crippling disease was in September 2017.

In the meantime, a spike in measles cases in displacement camps in Idleb and Aleppo governorates since January has spurred an emergency outbreak response to boost the immunity of at-risk children against measles. Over the past week, 11 WHO health partners have vaccinated over 24 000 children, aged 5–15, in 166 camps. This age group represents over 30% of the 364 measles cases confirmed to date in the displacement camps since January.

In early April, WHO and its health partners will launch a large-scale measles vaccination campaign targeting 723 000 children under the age of 5 in northern Syria.

“There have been a number of polio and measles vaccination campaigns throughout Syria aimed at protecting children against the diseases, but ongoing unrest has hindered access to all areas, and ongoing displacement increases the risk of the diseases spreading,” says Dr Mostapha Loutfy, an immunization expert with WHO’s Gaziantep field office, who coordinates immunization programmes in northern Syria with WHO partners.

Many areas, including Idleb and Aleppo, have been void of routine vaccination programmes since the onset of the 7-year Syria conflict.

“This means the majority of children in these areas, born during this period, are unlikely to have been immunized against many preventable and life-threatening diseases,” says Dr Loutfy.

WHO has been working to restart routine vaccination activities at health facilities across the country.  In northern Syria, routine vaccinations have resumed at 64 health centres as part of WHO’s effort to rebuild health services that have been disrupted or decimated by the crisis.

WHO’s “whole of Syria approach” aims to ensure populations everywhere in Syria have access to vital health-care assistance, including vaccinations.

These critical vaccination campaigns are funded by the governments of Japan and Norway, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO). WHO’s work to restore routine vaccination programmes is covered by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), USAID and ECHO.