Syria’s government and rebels were urged this week to respect “vaccination ceasefires” and allow access to hundreds of thousands of children threatened by an outbreak of polio, another sign of the cost of the country’s conflict.
The call came as prospects for peace talks receded yet again. The United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was said after talks in Damascus to be resigned to postponing the long-awaited Geneva II conference from next month to January.
Save the Children issued the ceasefire appeal after the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Damascus government confirmed an outbreak of the highly contagious disease in eastern Syria, the first for 14 years. Half a million children under the age of five are at risk of contracting polio, which is incurable and can result in death or lifelong paralysis.
The mass movement of Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries means there is a high risk that the virus could spread.
The WHO confirmed 10 cases of polio and said 12 more were being investigated. Most of the 22 who have been tested are babies and toddlers. Before the war began in 2011, 95% of Syrian children were vaccinated against the disease. The UN now estimates that 500 000 children have not been immunised.
The news will galvanise international attempts to secure safe access for humanitarian relief workers, even if the prospects for talks between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition remain poor.
Justin Forsyth, of Save the Children, said: “We need these ceasefires to reach all children with vaccines, no matter where they live.
“If chemical weapons inspectors can be allowed access across Syria with notebooks, surely aid workers can be allowed in with vaccines.”
Progress on humanitarian relief was reported on Tuesday from the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya following the relaxation of a government blockade. Muadhamiya had been closed off since March and supplies were running desperately short. “We didn’t see a piece of bread for nine months,” a woman told the BBC. “We were eating leaves and grass.”
Arab diplomatic sources reported that Brahimi, after two days of talks in Damascus, was expected to inform the United States and Russia that the Geneva talks would have to be postponed. The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group, has yet to decide whether to attend. Islamist fighting groups have insisted they will not, and warned that negotiating with Assad would be treachery.
In another indication that any talks will be fraught, the Syrian government announced the dismissal of Assad’s deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil. Jamil, often described as Moscow’s man in Damascus, suggested last month that the government would propose a ceasefire as a gesture of goodwill before the Geneva meeting, but then retracted his statement. – © Guardian News & Media 2013