Under-prepared aid agencies fail to disburse polio vaccines in Syria

A boy in Grade 6 receives a dose of vitamin A from a health worker, who has also given him a measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, at a school in Damascus, the capital, on the first day of the March 2014 UNICEF-supported nationwide polio and MMR immunization campaign. (Credit: UNICEF Finland)

Update: Save the Children UK responded to the article and Dr Sparrow was provided the opportunity to reply. Read it here.

The civil war in Syria has severely damaged health care access in the country, causing many problems. One example is the spread of polio in the country and across borders. Pediatrician and global health professor Dr Annie Sparrow writes a damning piece in the New York Review of Books about the situation. Standing out is a section which illustrates the failures of the WHO and international aid organizations. The greatest scrutiny falls upon Save the Children UK, who lied about the destruction of 250,000 vaccine doses.

Remarkably, WHO and UNICEF now take credit for this campaign. In reality, in December, rather than supply vaccines directly to the Polio Task Force, WHO adopted the half-measure of acquiring one million doses of vaccine and giving them to three international humanitarian organizations for distribution in northern Syria: Doctors Without Borders–Holland, International Medical Corps, and Save the Children UK. The vaccine was of the bivalent variety, considerably more effective than the trivalent variety that, with the assistance of the Turkish government, was the best that the task force could acquire. However, unlike the Syrian groups behind the Polio Task Force, none of the international organizations had any capacity to mount their own vaccination campaign in northern Syria, so the vaccines sat in warehouses undistributed.

In February, the Polio Task Force’s planned second round of vaccination faced further delay because of a lack of vaccines. Having learned from a somewhat abashed WHO that international NGOs were sitting on one million unused vaccine doses, the task force sought access. International Medical Corps and Doctors Without Borders–Holland immediately agreed. Save the Children UK, however, declined, claiming that one quarter of a million vaccine doses had been destroyed when its warehouse in Idlib was shelled. In the spring, the task force learned that, contrary to this claim, the warehouse was intact and Save the Children was still in possession of the 250,000 doses. It again issued an urgent request for the vaccines.

In May, after lengthy exchanges between the local health manager of Save the Children, members of the Polio Task Force, and local WHO officials, Save the Children finally acknowledged that it had the vaccines and agreed to relinquish them, but admitted that its cold-storage had been compromised in January, when there was inconsistent electricity for twenty-six days and no back-up generator. Save the Children’s team insisted that the vaccines were still usable, but WHO officials, concerned about the vaccine’s viability after this poor storage, insisted that photos of the vials be sent from Idlib. After reviewing the viability seals on the vials, Dr. Raul Bonifacio, a WHO official, concluded that “these vaccines cannot be used for any polio vaccination activity.”

Despite this appalling record, Save the Children UK has now applied to the Gates Foundation for funding to lead vaccination activities for measles in Idlib governorate. And while local politics have been blamed for delaying a comprehensive anti-measles vaccination campaign, UNICEF, working under a shroud of secrecy, is replicating WHO’s ways by mistakenly acquiring measles-only vaccines for the Syrian opposition-led Measles Task Force while distributing to international NGOs the better measles-rubella vaccines that are needed for broad protection.

Missteps such as these, combined with the intensifying brutality of the Syrian military, may now be undermining polio eradication efforts across the Middle East and more widely.

Read Sparrow’s complete article here.

HT Lauren Wolfe

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.