International aid finally managed to reach the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo on Wednesday for the first time since last June, further highlighting just how bad the humanitarian crisis has become for civilians trapped in the midst of the brutal three-year civil war, where a polio outbreak now appears to be spreading.
A rare ceasefire was agreed on between Syrian forces and opposition fighters to allow the delivery of the supplies into the neighborhood of Bustan al Qasr, which United Nations High Commission of Refugees workers delivered by hand.
This comes after widespread reports of starvation in other Syrian cities that provoked an international outcry earlier this year, such as in Homs, which was evacuated in February after a prolonged aid blockade.
Although there were no official reports of starvation in this area of eastern Aleppo, there are acute shortages of food, water and basic medical supplies that this delivery alone is unlikely to be able to fully address, Dan McNorton, a UNHCR spokesperson, told VICE News.
“The aid was mostly food and medicine, but it was unfortunately only a small amount that won’t last long,” said McNorton. “The needs are great inside of Syria and we need to see further deliveries like this.”
Food shortages are not the only issue residents in Syrian cities are currently facing. An outbreak of polio in Syria that occurred in October of last year, with nearly 40 cases reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Aleppo, has now apparently spread outside of the country and into Iraq.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health confirmed at least one case in northern Baghdad on March 30. But this is considered a low estimate, and there are likely more. Other sources are saying the number is closer to 90 in Syria, with the first reports emerging last May.
The WHO said that the polio case in Iraq — found in a six-month-old unvaccinated child in Baghdad — is related to the outbreak in Syria.
The resurgence of the virus, long since thought to be eradicated, is causing substantial alarm. This is the first confirmed case of polio in Iraq in 14 years, and in Syria, the last case was reported 15 years ago, after mandatory vaccination began in the 1990s.
International health officials are issuing warnings about the crippling virus, which is highly contagious and primarily affects children under 5. It is easily spread in conflict zones, and especially in areas such as Syria, where medical relief has been compromised and the population is very young.
A spokesperson for the United Nations Relief Works Agency called it “arguably the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication.”
In response to the outbreak, the Polio Eradication Initiative, an organization that works with the WHO and UNICEF, launched a mass vaccination campaign last week in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey that aims to vaccinate over 20 million children in 5 days.
Others have blamed the Assad regime as personally responsible for the polio outbreak as a result of withholding polio vaccinations and other humanitarian relief from rebel-controlled areas as a tool of war.
To further complicate matters, the UN is forced to work with the Assad government to deliver aid, therefore allowing the regime to dictate the terms of who receives medical attention, where it gets delivered, and when it gets turned off.
The WHO reported that rate of vaccinations has sharply decreased from 83 percent of two-year-olds since the start of the conflict, to 53 percent in 2012. This means that a significant portion of Syrian children born after 2010 are unvaccinated and left vulnerable to the virus.
“Ultimately, we need to see more increased access allowed across the board in Syria,” said McNorton. This is unlikely to be possible, however, as the civil war shows no sign of slowing down.
On Wednesday, Assad and Hezbollah forces recaptured the strategic town of Rankous from rebels. The offensive, which began in November of last year, marks a key victory for Assad’s fighters as they further consolidate their control over the Qalamoun region, which borders Lebanon and is a key supply route for rebel forces.
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