Syrian health workers administer polio vaccination to a girl at a school in Damascus. (file photo)
German scientists say polio outbreak, confirmed in at least 10 Syrian children, may threaten Europe.
They said in the Lancet medical journal on Friday that the risk to Europe was partly because of the type of vaccine normally used in regions where the disease has not been present for many years.
"Definitely, as long as there are countries worldwide with a polio transmission, there is a threat to our status of being polio-free and there is a threat that the infection, not necessarily the disease, will be introduced to Germany. Currently, we have a rather high vaccination coverage in most countries of central Europe and western Europe so the threat of an introduction is not that high," said Martin Eichner, professor and infection epidemiology expert at the University of Tubingen.
Polio can spread rapidly by passing from one person to another, especially in the unsanitary conditions of displaced people in Syria or in overpopulated refugee camps in the neighboring countries.
Eichner said the situation for Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Ukraine is the most dangerous, adding, "Most countries in western Europe are very well vaccinated and should be rather safe against the introduction of at least a sustained transmission. So the virus can be brought but it won't spread very far usually, unless it hits one of these pockets that may exist every now and then in a country.”
The German scientists noted that most European countries currently use inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), which provides only partial protection compared to highly effective oral polio vaccination (OPV).
"Vaccinating only Syrian refugees - as has been recommended by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control - must be judged as insufficient," they wrote, adding, "More comprehensive measures should be taken into consideration."
Last month, polio virus, which is transmitted via contaminated food or water, was confirmed among young children in the province of Deir Ezzor in the east of the crisis-hit country.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the virus has probably spread from Pakistan and can pose a threat to all children across the Middle East.
Meanwhile, emergency plans were under way on Friday to vaccinate more than 20 million children in the Middle East.
According to the WHO, more than 650,000 children in Syria, including 116,000 in Deir Ezzor, have already been immunized.
Syria has been gripped by deadly unrest since 2011. According to reports, the Western powers and their regional allies -- especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey -- are supporting the militants operating inside the country.
According to the United Nations, more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions displaced due to the turmoil that has gripped Syria for over two years.
The UN also says more than four million other Syrians will be forced out of their homes in 2014 by the escalating conflict in the country.
Two million Syrians are expected to take refuge outside the country while another 2.25 million are predicted to be internally displaced in the next year.