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Foreign fighters tied to outbreak of polio in Syria

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A Syrian student receives a vaccination as part of a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign at a school in Damascus.

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DAMASCUS — A Syrian government minister Sunday said foreign fighters who have come to wage jihad have caused a polio outbreak in the rebel-controlled north.

Last week, the U.N. health agency confirmed 10 polio cases in northeast Syria, the first outbreak in the country in 14 years, raising a risk of it spreading regionwide.

The confirmed cases are among babies and toddlers, all under 2, who were “underimmunized,” the World Health Organization said.

Officials await lab results on 12 more potential cases.

Nearly all Syrian children were vaccinated against polio before the conflict began more than 2½ years ago.

Kindah al-Shammat, social affairs minster, blamed jihadis from Pakistan. She offered no evidence. Pakistan is one of three nations where polio is endemic.

Ms. al-Shammat said Syria has launched an immunization efforrt to “protect all children in Syria.”

She did not say how the vaccinations will proceed in the north, along Turkey’s border. Rebels have controlled the area since capturing swaths of land and neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the past year.

Syrian officials have blamed terrorists and Islamic militants for the civil war that has killed more than 120,000 people. The conflict began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule in March, 2011. It became an armed conflict after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a crackdown on dissent.

The fighting has triggered a humanitarian crisis, driving nearly 7 million people from homes and ruining a country that once subsidized health care, including immunizations.

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