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Will polio outbreak inspire international community to do more about Syria?

October 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ten cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria -- the first appearance of the disease in the country since 1999. Gwen Ifill speaks with Joel Charny of InterAction on how the outbreak adds to the challenge of the humanitarian crisis and how the ongoing war has caused the destruction of the nation's medical infrastructure.
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GWEN IFILL: Polio was last seen in Syria in 1999, but today’s confirmation of 10 new and 12 other suspected cases in the country’s Deir el-Zour province means the crippling disease is back. All of the confirmed victims are under the age of 2.

So, how does this — so, what does this new outbreak tell us about the state of the humanitarian challenge inside Syria?

Joining me is Joel Charny of InterAction an alliance of U.S.-based international relief aid development organizations.

Thank you so much for joining us.

JOEL CHARNY, InterAction: You’re welcome.

GWEN IFILL: Who is most vulnerable in this?

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JOEL CHARNY: The children are vulnerable.

There are three million children under 5 in Syria. They’re the ones that would be most at risk from a catastrophic polio epidemic. But, let’s face it. At this point, everyone in Syria is vulnerable. We’re dealing with a humanitarian catastrophe of immense dimensions.

We haven’t been able to make really any significant progress in overcoming it. And at this point, I want to say, really, the whole Syrian population is vulnerable in one way or another.

GWEN IFILL: Is it lack of vaccination? Is it lack of a medical structure?

JOEL CHARNY: The medical structure in Syria was very solid pre-war.

And as human rights groups have testified and written about, what’s happened is a systematic destruction of that medical — medical infrastructure, deliberate killing of doctors, targeting of medical facilities. And that’s completely eroded what, pre-war, would have been a very solid and very decent medical infrastructure.

GWEN IFILL: Is it fair to says that this is a natural outgrowth of the growth of the refugee camps?

JOEL CHARNY: Well, it’s — the polio itself for now is an internal matter.

I think what it’s an outgrowth of is just the sheer chaos in Syria, the breakdown of, again, the medical infrastructure and the medical system, but, again, just the consequence of the relentless war and relentless attacks on the civilian population.

GWEN IFILL: That relentless war is, last — the number I saw was 4,000 people a day fleeing, displaced…

JOEL CHARNY: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: … trying to find someplace else to go.

Is that strictly attributable to the war, would you say?

JOEL CHARNY: Definitely.

I mean, people are — who leave are leaving as a last resort. They’re leaving out of desperation. They’re leaving because of the violence, but also because it’s so difficult to reach them with humanitarian assistance. So, if their family is absolutely in need, absolutely on the edge, at some point, you do say, I have no choice but to pick up and cross a border into Turkey, into Lebanon, into Jordan, and into Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Now, when we think about Syria, we hear a lot about armed struggle. We hear about the search for chemical weapons. We hear less about the humanitarian toll.

Is that something which is a natural outgrowth, or is one causing the other? I guess I’m trying to figure chicken and egg.

JOEL CHARNY: The war is causing the humanitarian crisis.

But what I’m really struggling with is why more people globally haven’t been seized with the humanitarian aspect.

GWEN IFILL: Why is that, do you think?

JOEL CHARNY: I think part of it is, we’re struggling to find sort of good guys and bad guys in this situation. We’re struggling to sort of see a human face to this.

And, of course, a polio epidemic is horrible, but I’m actually hoping that maybe this will be the moment where people galvanize. In other words, this can be the humanitarian equivalent of the use of chemical weapons. Maybe we can draw a line at polio outbreak, and say, now we must find a way to respond more effectively.

GWEN IFILL: But galvanize and do what? Actually physically get goods into refugee camps and the — break up the refugee camps? What is the goal here?

JOEL CHARNY: The refugee camps are accessible. The issue is inside Syria.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

JOEL CHARNY: And what the U.N. emergency relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, has called for is a humanitarian pause. Can we stop the violence for a moment?

GWEN IFILL: Describe to me how that would work.

JOEL CHARNY: You would have to negotiate it with the Assad government.

You would have to negotiate it with the armed groups, and you would have to — it was done in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. It can be done, at least in certain parts of Syria, to allow something like a vaccination campaign to go forward.

GWEN IFILL: So the aid is there; it’s just not getting through?

JOEL CHARNY: It cannot get through because of the conflict, basically.

GWEN IFILL: So are there long-term and short-term choices here, as you try to figure out what happens next?

JOEL CHARNY: Definitely.

I mean, the — something like a polio epidemic is an alarm, an emergency that must be dealt with immediately. But look at the region. Look at the two or three million people who have crossed into neighboring countries. To rebuild Syria, to allow people to recover, if the war stopped tomorrow, it would be a long-term effort.

GWEN IFILL: So, what has — who has to take the lead in this?

JOEL CHARNY: Fundamentally, it’s about diplomacy and pressure on the Syrian government and some of the armed groups to allow this humanitarian access to happen.

I’m thinking we need something dramatic. We almost need to have the world leaders start a fast or something to raise — we haven’t been able to find a way to get the appropriate level of political pressure that will allow basically what should be easy, humanitarian assistance, to go forward.

GWEN IFILL: Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy for InterAction, thank you.

JOEL CHARNY: No, you’re welcome. Thanks.