Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond should be required reading for anyone working in global health. It should also alert a much wider audience to the ways that many kinds of the microorganisms called pathogens have caused Western pandemics of chronic, or so-called noncommunicable, diseases. Many of our most familiar diseases are set off or directly caused by pathogens.
Recently, the Syrian government has used chlorine directly against civilians as a chemical weapon. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has thus transformed a principal element of public health into a tool of both disease and terror.
In response to Annie Sparrow’s recent article on the public health crisis in Syria and in particular the threat of polio, The New York Review has received the following statement from Save the Children-UK. A reply by Sparrow is posted beneath the statement.—The Editors
The threat of epidemics spreading from Syria to surrounding countries has grown with frightening speed. Among the diseases that have spread most rapidly are measles, hepatitis, and leishmaniasis. Then there is polio, a terrifying disease of early childhood that had long been eradicated in the Middle East. In Syria, it was eliminated in 1995, yet since mid-2013 the country has faced an outbreak of polio that has spread widely across opposition-controlled areas of the north. And now polio, like the jihadists, has spilled across the border to Iraq.
Syria has become a cauldron of once-rare infectious diseases, with hundreds of cases of measles each month and outbreaks of typhoid, hepatitis, and dysentery. Tuberculosis, diphtheria, and whooping cough are all on the rise. Upward of 100,000 children are stigmatized by leishmaniasis, a hideous parasitic skin disease that flourishes in war. Many of these diseases have already traveled beyond Syria’s borders, carried by millions of refugees. And now polio is back.
Over the last few weeks, the growing plight of Syria’s civilian population has drawn belated international attention to the country’s failing health system. In late October, in the eastern part of the country, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio; and reports of malnutrition and disease in the besieged areas on the outskirts of Damascus and other embattled cities have raised new fears of a spreading public health disaster. But these developments are not simply the unfortunate effects of an increasingly brutal war. They are connected to something far more sinister: a direct assault on the medical system by the Syrian government as a strategy of war.