The recent outbreak of polio in Syrian refugees is a cause for concern, says Michael O’ Sullivan

Polio; the word used to strike fear into the hearts of many. That fear is no longer present in the western world, however, as the disease has long since been eradicated. In fact, it is now uniquely found in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, though vaccination drives in all three are driving down case numbers annually.

A horrendous and incurable disease, polio causes paralysis in random parts of the body, most often the legs. It attacks grey matter in the central nervous system and stops it functioning correctly. This leads to the muscles wasting away, and the sufferer is left with useless limbs and the fear of the disease spreading. Should the disease progress up the spinal cord, it can paralyse the lungs and eventually cause death.

Polio eradication is one of the true great success stories of western civilisation. During the 1950s, the disease was rampant across the globe, causing thousands of deaths in the US alone, leaving many times more with varying types of paralysis. What followed formed the basis of modern medicine.

Ordinary people funded the drive to find a cure and campaigned to raise awareness of the disease and its signs. Modern day intensive care is based on treatments and techniques developed to keep polio sufferers alive when they arrived in hospitals, often struggling to breathe. Modern rehabilitation methods started with polio victims, and those affected by the disease were the forerunners of the disability rights movement.

You can imagine therefore, that the news that cases have been cropping up in Syrian refugees is incredibly worrying, especially since the country had previously eradicated the disease. The most likely cause for this latest outbreak is, not surprisingly, the civil war. The majority of cases appearing are those in children under two years of age, since vaccinations stopped after the war began.

There is also suspicion that refugees are contracting the disease from their Pakistani neighbours, as vaccination is prohibited in north-west Pakistan. 22 cases have been confirmed so far, and when you consider the fact that only one in two hundred of infected people ever show symptoms, the threat level is rising.

We have all received the polio vaccine. Most of us probably don’t even remember getting it, but it has saved the lives of thousands. Its effectiveness is as clear-cut as they come, as polio was wiped out once the vaccine was administered globally. This latest outbreak is a major reversal, and the cause is largely due to human ignorance.

The prohibition of the vaccine in Pakistan stems largely from the fact that most vaccination clinics in the region are run by the US, and the Taliban are using the vaccine as a wedge to keep the US out. They say that while the US continues to attack them with drone strikes, they will kill anyone they catch attempting to vaccinate against polio in the area and aid workers have already perished as a result.

Many reading this will probably feel stunned by the archaic ideals of some foreign administrations and the massive detrimental effect their ideals can have on their people. Would it come as a surprise then, that the US itself is one of the worlds’ largest hotbeds of anti-vaccination campaigning?

In the last seven to eight years, there has been a marked increase in the proliferation of anti-vaccination material in the US, largely due to celebrities and public figures jumping on the bandwagon. They reason that their vaccines make children autistic, as the numbers of diagnosed autism cases has risen in recent years.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account that the reason for the rise is the inclusion of many new disorders on the autistic spectrum and the fact that doctors are continuously improving their methods of diagnosis, resulting in an overall increase in the numbers diagnosed with the disorder.

The argument against vaccination is flawed on two fronts. The first is that saying that vaccines cause autism is about as broad a statement as it is possible to come out with. You may as well state that the universe contains lots of stuff.

Autism encompasses a huge and complex range of disorders that we are only beginning to fully understand, so naturally we are going to start recognising more forms as our understanding of the disorder increases. The second is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence to back up the claim that vaccines cause such disorders.

Ask an anti-vaccination campaigner to point out a single scientific study that shows a link to vaccines and autism and their rebuttal will involve pseudo-scientific political jargon. This sort of attitude is dangerous at best and downright lunacy at worst.

Children in countries where diseases such as polio have been eradicated have no natural immunity to the disease and so will suffer greatly if exposed. The only thing keeping the immunity levels up is the vaccine. By not vaccinating their children, parents are putting future generations at risk of contracting illnesses we thought we had removed from society a long time ago.

This has been shown true in some developing countries. After the disease was eradicated, they stopped administering the vaccine, only to have the disease re-emerge a few years later amongst the young, unvaccinated populace.

The current outbreak amongst Syrian refugees boils down to a simple problem, human stupidity. Had the Syrian regime not ousted these people from their homes, they would never have moved to Pakistan.

Had the Taliban not been so against any form of American interference, beneficial or not, polio could have been crushed in the area, and children wouldn’t have had to suffer. Politics has no place in the world when it comes to the lives of innocents, and its high time people began to realise that.