Syrian minister blames polio outbreak on 'jihadists' from Pakistan
First outbreak in 14 years brought in by foreign fighters, social affairs minister claims
A Syrian government minister said that foreign fighters who have come to the country to wage jihad are responsible for the outbreak of polio in the rebel-controlled north.
Last week, the United Nations health agency confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria, the first confirmed outbreak of the disease in the country in 14 years, raising a risk of it spreading across the region.
The confirmed cases are among babies and toddlers, all under two, who were "under- immunised," according to the World Health Organisation.
The agency is awaiting lab results on another 12 cases showing polio symptoms.
Minister of Social Affairs Kindah al-Shammat claimed that jihadis from Pakistan were to blame, saying: "The virus originates in Pakistan and has been brought to Syria by the jihadists who come from Pakistan."
She offered no evidence and did not elaborate further. Pakistan is one of three countries where polio remains endemic. Al-Shammat said the government had launched an immunisation campaign to "protect all children in Syria".
She did not say if or how the vaccination campaign would proceed in the northern areas along the border with Turkey.
The area has been under opposition control since rebels captured large swathes of land and whole neighbourhoods of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, from the regime over the past year.
Syrian government officials have blamed "terrorists" and Islamic militants for the civil war, which has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists. The UN said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict.
Thousands of foreign fighters have joined Sunni rebels in the battle against Assad, while the regime troops have been backed up by fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group in the past months.
The fighting has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, driving nearly seven million people from their homes and destroying a country that once offered subsidised health care, including immunisations.
Nearly all Syrian children were vaccinated against polio before the conflict began more than 2 1/2 years ago. The polio virus, a highly contagious disease, usually infects children in unsanitary conditions.