Originally published on Mon October 28, 2013 1:36 pm
Credit Alyce Henson / Courtesy of Rotary International
The world is close to eliminating polio once and for all.
Just a few decades ago, polio was crippling more than a thousand children each day. Now the paralyzing virus is endemic to only three countries — Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. And there were just 223 cases globally last year.
The World Health Organization is investigating a cluster of possible polio cases in an eastern province of Syria.
If the cases are confirmed, they'd be the first ones in the war-torn nation in more than a decade. The country eliminated polio in 1999.
Syria used to have one of the highest polio vaccination rates in the region. If the virus has returned, it would be a high-profile example of the ramifications of the collapse of Syria's once-vaunted public health system.
Mark Ward is the U.S. State Department's senior adviser on assistance to Syria, and when he heard the Syrian border town of Azaz was overrun by an offshoot of al-Qaida in September, he knew it was time to get creative again.
"You always have to have a plan B in this kind of work," he says.
Ward is based in Turkey. His job is to oversee a growing and unusual U.S. humanitarian assistance program in rebel-held areas in seven provinces across northern Syria.
A team of chemical weapons experts has arrived in Syria, where they will begin the long and complicated task of destroying the country's chemical weapons arsenal. Under a plan endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, the weapons are to be destroyed by next June.
Syria is wracked by a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and forced more than 2 million others to flee the country, according to recent U.N. figures.