Reading Los Angeles: Join The Times' new book club
Opinion Op-Ed

Polio's war foothold

Once virtually eradicated, polio again stalks the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The innocent victims are mostly young children. The perpetrators are insurgents and indifferent governments. The polio resurgence is preventable and it is time to pull out an old but proven technique to halt its spread: Days of Tranquility.

This 30-year-old quaintly named tactic involves a negotiated cease-fire during which insurgents and governments allow humanitarian groups to reach children trapped by fighting and immunize them against infectious diseases, such as polio. Key United Nations agencies and non-government organizations must be permitted to implement Days of Tranquility without delay in three areas: Somalia and its border regions with Kenya and Ethiopia, the conflict zones of Syria and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Skeptics might call the idea quixotic, especially considering the participants and the ferocity of the fighting, but the Days of Tranquility concept has succeeded before in the midst of deadly conflicts.

Conceived and championed by the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, and its NGO partners, Days of Tranquility was first declared in El Salvador in 1985. James P. Grant, the executive director of UNICEF, persuaded the government of El Salvador and the Faramundo Marti National Liberation Front to cease hostilities so that children younger than 5 could be immunized for several diseases, including polio.

There was a pause in fighting for one day per month for three consecutive months. More than 250,000 children were immunized. Days of Tranquility was used in El Salvador for six years, until the civil war ended, saving countless lives.

In many cases such as this, we both witnessed the UNICEF and NGO immunization teams going door to door through villages to ensure that as many children as possible were immunized.

At the end of the 1980s in southern Sudan, the tactic was successfully implemented again. The Sudanese government and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement agreed to halt their fighting and allow UNICEF and its NGO partners to move around the conflict area immunizing young children. Countless lives, again, were saved.

Since El Salvador and southern Sudan, the Days of Tranquility tactic has succeeded elsewhere, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. This year in Somalia, International Medical Corps joined the UNICEF/World Health Organization polio vaccination campaign in the Mogadishu area.

It can and must be done again.

The revival of polio follows more than two decades of a highly successful campaign led by WHO and UNICEF that by 2012 had reduced the total number cases worldwide to 223, with just six

of them new. But in mid-December, WHO reported more than

200 new cases for 2013.

Syria had been free of the polio virus for more than a decade until a recent outbreak of 17 confirmed cases, according to WHO. Today, that outbreak puts the entire country and its neighbors at risk. WHO also reports that there are now more than 60 suspected cases in Syria and along its borders, primarily among children younger than 2.

The Horn of Africa is also experiencing a polio emergency, with 203 confirmed cases, 183 in Somalia, 14 in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya and six in southern Ethiopia. And the polio caseload is increasing in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. In each situation, several hundred thousand children are left beyond the reach of vaccination teams because of political instability.

Unless the outbreaks of polio are addressed immediately and decisively, the campaign to erase this horrible disease from the world will be thwarted. The new outbreaks can be contained and there is no excuse for delay. The UN and its NGO partners stand ready to respond.

Days of Tranquility is probably the only chance to protect the health of the extremely vulnerable children in Syria, the Horn of Africa and along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier. Despite appeals, political movements and governments in these areas have been unable to find a way to pause for a few days for the good of their children.

Days of Tranquility is a small good that history has shown can work — even in the most virulent conflicts.

Nancy A. Aossey is president and chief executive of International Medical Corps, a Los Angeles-based humanitarian organization. William Garvelink is the group's senior advisor for global strategy. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2007 to 2010.


Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Health shouldn't be based on where you live
    Health shouldn't be based on where you live

    Strand by strand, my younger sister has been pulling the threads of her life back together after a couple of lost decades. A year ago at age 52, and with the financial support of our extended family, she found housing in Virginia, where we were both born and raised, and she has since gotten a part-time...

  • House GOP lawsuit wages surprising fight over federal purse strings
    House GOP lawsuit wages surprising fight over federal purse strings

    When the House GOP authorized a lawsuit accusing President Obama of overstepping his authority, the rationale it offered was a head-scratcher: the administration's move to delay the employer mandate, a requirement that House Republicans unanimously opposed.

  • Who should and shouldn't get heart transplants -- and why?
    Who should and shouldn't get heart transplants -- and why?

    When a Georgia teenager named Anthony Stokes got himself killed not long ago, smashing up a stolen car in a police chase after supposedly taking a shot at an old lady in her house, the regret that poured out online was not for the death of the 17-year-old, but for the “waste” of the transplanted...

  • Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding
    Children's Health Insurance Program deserves funding

    In what may be a hopelessly quixotic effort, supporters of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program are trying to persuade Congress to renew its funding almost a year in advance — and in a lame-duck session. Nevertheless, lawmakers ought to heed that call. The program plugs a troubling gap...

  • The GOP's shameful lawsuit against Obamacare
    The GOP's shameful lawsuit against Obamacare

    The lawsuit the House GOP filed against President Obama on Friday opened a new front in the attack on the 2010 healthcare law, this time targeting the subsidies that reduce deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket expenses faced by lower-income Americans. According to the complaint, the subsidies...

  • A sensible cap on costly prescription drugs
    A sensible cap on costly prescription drugs

    To help prevent Americans from being bankrupted by medical bills, the 2010 federal healthcare law placed an annual cap on deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs imposed by health insurers. That's turned out to be a mixed blessing for Americans who suffer from certain chronic diseases,...

  • Stop the guessing game over which doctors are in-network
    Stop the guessing game over which doctors are in-network

    One of the loudest complaints about the policies sold through Covered California, the state's new health insurance exchange, is that they provide access to far fewer doctors than promised. On Wednesday, state regulators finally confirmed and quantified the problem with respect to two leading insurers,...

  • Jonathan Gruber should've been Time's Person of the Year
    Jonathan Gruber should've been Time's Person of the Year

    Jonathan Gruber should have been Time's Person of the Year. The magazine gave it to the "Ebola Fighters" instead. Good for them; they're doing God's work. Still, Gruber would have been better.