This Terrifying Disease Is Making A Comeback In Syria. Here's How We Can Stop it.

A recent bout of polio cases in Syria is a terrifying side affect of the current civil war. However, we can make progress in the fight for a stronger public health system.
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Earlier this year, I spent two months in northern Syria setting up the International Rescue Committee's health response to the national crisis. During that time, it became abundantly clear that political conflict is severely impacting public health.

A recent outbreak of polio in the war-torn country only serves to underscore these worsening health woes. The WHO recently confirmed 10 cases of the infectious disease in toddlers in northern Syria. This is not only a tragedy for them and their families, but also a depressing bellwether for the deteriorating health of the country as a whole.

In the communities where we opened our integrated primary and reproductive health care clinics and our pair of mobile units, we were -- and still are -- essentially the only health providers. There is no health system. Government-supported clinics closed down months earlier, meaning the most at-risk population of mothers, babies and the elderly have nowhere to turn after two years of civil war.

In northern Syria, health facilities have been destroyed by fighting or abandoned by doctors, midwives, nurses and other health providers who have fled the country. As a doctor specializing in obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics, it was heartbreaking to see. The war left pregnant women with no access to essential care during their deliveries. Women were giving birth at home, often without the assistance of trained personnel. In the case of a complication, a woman could suffer long-term consequences, or worse, die.

But we are making progress. We've hired Syrian medical staff who are wholly committed to saving lives. We've strengthened a cold chain, enabling us to immunize against polio and measles, and provide vaccines for other preventable diseases. We're providing pre- and post-natal care and delivery services for pregnant women.

The IRC has already served close to 30,000 patients this year. In that time, we've inoculated more than 2,100 children against polio. Our Syrian partners are reaching a much broader swath of the country with more than 50 tons of medicine and medical equipment that saves lives. Unfortunately, that is nowhere near enough. Many doctors have died, and almost 40 percent of Syria's hospitals have closed.

As a humanitarian and a doctor, I avoid politics. However, I know what is essential to saving Syrian lives in the short term. The humanitarian community must immediately be provided open access across borders and within Syria itself. Without that, preventable malnutrition, illness and disease will only worsen during the long winter ahead.

To donate to the IRC's humanitarian response in Syria, visit

Since 1998, Johnson & Johnson's support of the IRC has been instrumental in helping to improve the health and well-being of women, children and their communities.