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Polio Outbreak Among Syrian Infants and Toddlers Blamed on 'Jihadists Who Come from Pakistan,' Official Says

The confirmed cases are among babies and toddlers, all under 2, who were "under-immunized," according to the World Health Organization.

Story by the Associated Press; curated by Dave Urbanski

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A Syrian government minister said Sunday that foreign fighters who have come to the country to wage jihad are responsible for the outbreak of polio in the rebel-controlled north.

Last week, the United Nations health agency confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria, the first confirmed outbreak of the disease in the country in 14 years, raising a risk of it spreading across the region. The confirmed cases are among babies and toddlers, all under 2, who were "under-immunized," according to the World Health Organization. The agency is awaiting lab results on another 12 cases showing polio symptoms.

Minister of Social Affairs Kindah al-Shammat told The Associated Press on Sunday that jihadis from Pakistan were to blame.

"The virus originates in Pakistan and has been brought to Syria by the jihadists who come from Pakistan," the minister said. She offered no evidence and did not elaborate on the claim. Pakistan is one of three countries where polio remains endemic.

Al-Shammat said the government has launched an immunization campaign to "protect all children in Syria." She did not say if and how the vaccination campaign will proceed in the northern areas along the border with Turkey. That area has been under opposition control since the rebels captured large swaths of land and whole neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, from the regime over the past year.

Nearly all Syrian children were vaccinated against polio before the conflict began more than 2 1/2 years ago.

The polio virus, a highly contagious disease, usually infects children in unsanitary conditions through the consumption of food or liquid contaminated with feces. It attacks the nerves and can kill or paralyze, and can spread widely and unnoticed before it starts crippling children. The disease was last reported in Syria in 1999.

Here's a report on the polio outbreak from the AFP:

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