Polio Vaccination Teams in India

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

Behind all the media attention from the Syrian Civil war, another issue has emerged from the shadows. Previously thought to be globally eradicated as of 1999, polio is making a comeback among the war-ravaged Syrian population. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that polio has been eradicated from the entire world except for the nations of Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, where it has been slowly on the decline. However, polio has been on the rise in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. As of November 26, 2013, 17 cases of polio have been confirmed in the region; by December 2, 2013, the number of cases had increased to over 60. A decrease in vaccine coverage in Pakistan lead to the conception of the Polio Eradication Campaign by the WHO in December 2012. The goal? To vaccinate all children in the region under the age of five against polio. In Syria specifically, this noble undertaking was executed with the help of the UN Children’s Fund and the Syrian Ministry of Health. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is currently an all-encompassing movement that is operational in 200 countries with the help of national governments and various service organizations. Without the help of the Syrian Ministry of Health, the 4,000 workers would not have been able to mobilize themselves in Syria to help the 2.5 million children in 13 Syrian provinces.

However, the WHO stated in October 2013 that there have been 15 confirmed cases of polio in Syria, despite the efforts of the “Eradicate Polio Campaign” (EPC). Coincidentally, all 15 cases (now more than 60 cases) are all in the Deir Azzor province of Syria. This region was also excluded from the EPC vaccinations earlier this year, because the Syrian Ministry of Health claimed that “the majority of residents have relocated to other areas in the country” due to the ongoing civil war in the area. However, a local health official associated with the ACU (Assistance Coordination Unit; an organization that provides assistance to victims of humanitarian crises) says that, contrary to the WHO contention of 15 cases, there are actually a shocking 52 cases of polio among children in the region alone. In addition, there has been no Ministry of Health presence in the Deir Azzor province at all. It should come as no surprise then that the Deir Azzor province has been under rebel control since 2012, which is why there has been no Syrian-controlled polio aid, resulting in the apparent concealment of the true extent of the polio endemic. In essence, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, can be accused of using polio to help suppress the civil war ravaging his country.

The WHO has stated that the strain of polio present in Syria can be genetically linked to the active Pakistani strain. However, the WHO also claims that it is not the migrating Pakistani militants who brought the disease to Syria, but the nomadic tribal groups that have allowed the disease to fester and grow in Pakistan. The virus has been dormant in the Deir Azzor province of Syria for the past 18 months, but the current instability from the civil war has yielded favorable biological conditions for the virus and prompted it to reemerge and infect local children. Similar conditions are present in the Khyber valley where the virus remains prominent in Pakistan.

It is interesting to note that the Taliban, through their extensive presence in the Pakistani region, has implemented a “jihad against Polio vaccinations,” and has taken to attacking various human rights groups administering polio vaccinations, which is why several polio aid workers in Pakistan have been attacked. This Jihad is mainly directed against polio vaccinators and other health workers, but is intended to lessen the number of U.S. drone strikes and attacks in the region. The Taliban is essentially holding its own children hostage to call for a ceasefire from the United States. Another reason that the Taliban is targeting public health groups (like the Global Eradication Initiative) is the death of Osama bin Laden. To confirm bin Laden’s location when he was in hiding, CIA operatives staged fake vaccination drives in 2011 to validate the presence of the family in the region. They compared blood samples from the vaccination drive with a blood sample from bin Laden’s sister, who had died previously in a Boston hospital. Obviously, the samples from Abbottabad came back positive and confirmed his presence in the area. However, this led the Taliban and native Pakistanis to harbor a massive distrust of health care professionals in the region, especially toward western health care organizations, which are now essentially disallowed. However, in a state that is predominantly Muslim as Pakistan is, polio vaccinations are bound to be required, as now all pilgrims to Saudi Arabia (location of both Islamic holy sites, Mecca and Medina) are required to have their polio vaccination shots before entering the country, according to the Saudi Arabian Embassy. This may pose a problem for any Pakistani citizens wishing to complete the hajj, or holy pilgrimage, which is a requirement for Muslims everywhere.

Without more aid and extended reach from the Eradicate Polio Campaign, the possibility that polio could further migrate from Syria and other areas of unrest to the developed world will become a very realistic one. Vaccinations are imperative for travelers and workers in affected regions, as well as unexposed children, though in the Deir Azzor province, the children might be hard to find. We can only hope that the WHO’s “Eradicate Polio Campaign” will prevent this highly contagious disease from taking further lives. This currently regional issue could become an international concern if not controlled.

Image by the Gates Foundation


Map of Kurdistan

By James Kim
Staff Writer

At the crossroads of ancient empires in Upper Mesopotamia lies the largest stateless ethnic group on the planet: the Kurds. They number at around 35 million, but are spread throughout Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Perhaps their location, which the Persian, Hellenic, Roman and Ottoman armies once marched across, has been one of the reasons why the inhabitants of Kurdistan have yet to establish a permanent home for themselves. And even though those empires are dead and the Kurds have lived for millennia, the men of the mountains still find themselves a people without a nation.

Nevertheless, the hope to create a Kurdish nation continues on in their society, and for good reason as well. The Kurds of Iraq have benefited greatly from the U.S. invasion a decade ago, as American soldiers deposed the regime of Saddam Hussein, a man who gave the Kurds the same treatment Hitler had for the Jews: extermination by poison gas [1]. Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region within Iraq, is currently experiencing an economic boom and has avoided the domestic chaos that occurs daily in the rest of the country. In fact, when renowned food critic Anthony Bourdain visited the area two years ago, he was astonished to find amusement parks, outdoor club activities and spacious shopping centers that go against common stereotypes of Middle Eastern instability [2]. Later in his show, Bourdain meets with a few U.S. soldiers who admit, over a generous Kurdish buffet, that not a single U.S. casualty was recorded in the Kurdish regions. The Kurds know the door to self-determination has opened for them, and that now is the time to finally create a Kurdish nation.

Across the border, the Kurds of Syria now have their turn in securing the Kurdish homeland. At the same time Bourdain visited Northern Iraq, dissenters in Syria openly rebelled against the Assad regime, plunging the nation into a brutal civil war that has claimed over a 100,000 lives. The people of Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan calls itself locally, have avoided much of the bloodshed, as the Kurds there have united under the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This party promptly wrested control of the Kurdish region of Syria from Assad in the initial days of the war while preventing other rebel groups from coming in, as the rebels’ extreme Islamic ideology clashes with Kurdish nationalism.

A stalemate has been reached in Syria, as the loyalists and the multiple rebel factions have neither the strength nor the numbers to finish each other off. The Syrian Kurds know they cannot rely on American support that has favored their brothers and sisters in Iraq, so they have decided to take advantage of this deadlock to extort more concessions for their people. They make temporary alliances with one faction until the other grows weak enough for the Kurds to switch allegiances. This ruthless exploitation of the balance of power maintains the frontiers of Rojava and prevents the enemies of the Kurds from gaining enough momentum to interfere with its local autonomy.

However, the PYD knows that they have enemies outside of Syria’s borders. Turkey, which has carried out a decades-long campaign of repression in their Kurdish regions, has been alarmed at the sudden growth of Kurdish political power in the two neighboring nations. Fearing that a Syrian Kurdistan would set off a chain reaction or even encourage a revolution in Turkish Kurdistan, Turkey has funded the Syrian rebel groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates, in order to bolster their strength in the conflict with the PYD. The PYD also has its own internal ethnic tensions, as Iraqi Kurdistan has hesitated to send arms because their leader, Massoud Barzani, has the Periclean fear that too much Kurdish expansion would force their neighbors to form a coalition to end Kurdish Nationalism, although limited support has now started to come through. These extra factors have shown the Kurds that creating a nation will be an uphill battle for the montane people.

There has been a precedent in which a stateless group has, against all odds, established a country for themselves. Israel only became the Jewish homeland after its founders toiled and endured conflicts with local empires and innumerable hostile neighbors, while surviving a terrifying genocide. Time will tell if history will repeat itself for the better for the Kurdish people.

1. Makiya, Kanan. The Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. University of California Press, 1998. Print.

2. “Kurdistan.” Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Travel Channel. 22 Aug. 2011. Television.

Image by Jan Sefti