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.