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Suspected polio cases found in Syria for first time in 14 years

LONDON (Reuters) - Two suspected cases of polio have been detected in Syria, the first appearance of the incurable viral disease there in 14 years, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Saturday.

The U.N. body said initial test results from a cluster of cases of acute flaccid paralysis in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor in early October had come back positive for the crippling disease.

The WHO is still waiting for final test results from its regional reference laboratory. Wild poliovirus was last reported in Syria in 1999.

"The Ministry of Health of the Syrian Arab Republic confirms that it is treating this event as a cluster ... and an urgent response is currently being planned across the country, " the Geneva-based WHO said in statement.

"Syria is considered at high-risk for polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases due to the current situation."

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's 2-1/2-year-old conflict, which began with popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad before degenerating into civil war. Nearly 2.2 million refugees have fled the country.

Polio is a highly infectious disease that invades the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours. It is endemic in just three countries, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but sporadic cases also occur in other countries from time to time.

According to latest data from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, there have been 296 cases of the disease worldwide so far this year.

There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented with immunization. Polio vaccine, given in multiple doses in a child's early years, almost always protects a child for life.

The WHO said it had issued a surveillance alert for the region to actively search for additional potential cases. Additional emergency immunization activities are also being planned in neighboring countries.

The WHO recommends that all travelers to and from polio-infected areas be fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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