Last week, the United Nations confirmed 10 cases of polio in Syrian children. This was only one week after the U.N. launched a campaign to vaccinate more than 2.5 million young children in the war-stricken region after several paralyzed children were found in a northeastern Syrian village.
Polio isn’t a household virus name anymore. Since the vaccine for the incurable, paralyzing virus was introduced in 1955, children in the United States and other developed countries have typically received it in four doses before the age of two months. In 1988, the World Health Organization launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in an effort to completely obliterate the disease. For the most part, this effort has been successful: Last year, there were only 223 reported cases of polio in the world. In April of this year, GPEI formed a new strategy to nip the final outbreaks in the bud by 2018.
The ideas of immunity and vaccination have been around as early as 430 B.C. At the time, individuals who had been infected by smallpox were then known to be immune to the disease and were therefore responsible for taking care of the sick. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it was common for individuals to inject themselves with the pus from a smallpox sore in an attempt at inoculation. And while this usually just resulted in the spread of the illness, those who survived were later immune. In 1797, the British biologist Edward Jenner was the first to recognize that exposure to cowpox would produce only mild effects of the illness and somehow protect against future bouts of smallpox. He tested it by injecting an 8-year-old with cowpox. This was the first vaccine.
Jenner’s work inspired Louis Pasteur and, by extension, most of our modern concepts of the immune system. Once Pasteur coined his “germ theory,” or the idea that viruses and bacteria, as opposed to supertstitions, make us sick, it was fairly easy to understand how our bodies combat these little buggers.
The immune system contains several levels of protection, ranging from the obvious, like our skin and mucus layers, to the more elusive lymphocytes, specifically B-cells. B-cells are tiny cells generated from our lymph nodes that secrete antibodies, which patrol the blood stream and look for any skulking virus or bacteria that has not yet infected one of our body’s cells. Antibodies are specific for each illness-causing agent, and they swarm the invader until it can’t function.
Vaccines like the one for polio are made of dead strains of the virus to trigger antibody production from our B-cells. That way, whenever we encounter the live virus, we’ve already made enough antibodies to combat it before it takes over our own cells. Vaccines have been around for ages, and, despite recent anti-vaccine movements, they’re a great form of preventative medicine.
So it’s especially troubling that polio, an epidemic-prone disease, is now coming back in this region of the Middle East. Now, Syria and its neighboring countries are at risk for a new outbreak of the formerly dormant disease.
The nation’s ongoing civil war is unfortunately responsible for this fresh outbreak. As if chemical warfare weren’t horrible enough, Syrians haven’t had adequate access to vaccines either. Before the 31-month conflict started, about 95 percent of the population had been inoculated, which should have been more than enough to generate herd immunity — the idea that if most, but not all, of a population has protection against a particular illness, the whole group is safe.
In this column, I normally address quirky aspects of science in an attempt to inspire others to care about them like I do. I keep away from heavier topics like international crises because, frankly, they stress me out. But this headline is hard to ignore. Polio in Syria is a chilling reminder that science’s junction with international relations ties the intriguing to the life-threatening.
Originally published on The Hoya.