Syria's government and rebels were urged on Tuesday to respect "vaccination ceasefires" and permit access to hundreds of thousands of children threatened by an outbreak of polio – another sign of the mounting cost of the country's conflict.
The call came as prospects for peace talks receded yet again. The UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was said after talks in Damascus to be resigned to postponing the long-awaited Geneva II conference from next month to January.
Save the Children issued the ceasefire appeal after the World Health Organisation and the Damascus government confirmed an outbreak of the highly contagious disease in eastern Syria, the first for 14 years.
Half a million children under the age of five are at risk of contracting polio, which is incurable and can result in lifelong paralysis as well as death. The mass movement of Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries means there is a high risk the virus could spread.
The WHO confirmed 10 cases of polio and said 12 more were being investigated. Most of the 22 people who have been tested are babies and toddlers. Before the war began in 2011, 95% of Syrian children were vaccinated against the disease. The UN now estimates that 500,000 children have not been immunised.
The news will galvanise international attempts to secure safe access for humanitarian relief workers – even if the prospects for talks between President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition remain poor. Assad's international position has improved since he agreed to surrender his chemical weapons arsenal after the attacks in the Ghouta area in August.
Justin Forsyth of Save the Children said: "Polio doesn't respect conflict lines or borders so we need these ceasefires to reach all children with vaccines, no matter where they live. If chemical weapons inspectors can be allowed access across Syria with notebooks, surely aid workers can be allowed in with vaccines."