AMMANAMMAN (Reuters) - Syria's government has received its first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines through the global COVAX initiative, with almost 200,000 doses of the AstraZeneca shot, U.N officials said on Thursday.
A joint statement by UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the GAVI vaccine alliance said the delivery was "critical and timely" and would help health workers "to continue delivering life-saving services in an already exhausted health system as a result of the decade-long war."
Another 53,800 vaccines were delivered to the opposition-held north-west, which the statement said was an area that has seen large-scale displacement after a major hostilities last year.
The statement said more deliveries were planned in coming weeks and months.
Akjemal Magtymova, head of the WHO's Syria mission, told Syrian health officials and U.N. partners at a ceremony on the arrival of the shipment in Damascus there were challenges head but the country had a strong track record in vaccination programmes.
Magtymova said last month a phased rollout aimed to inoculate nearly 20% of Syria’s population by the end of the year, or almost five million people in both government-held areas and the northeast and northwest.
The Damascus government’s national programme across state-run territory, where most of the country’s nearly 20 million inhabitants live, will deploy dozens of teams across 76 hospitals with over 300 mobile units to access hard to reach areas.
Western NGOs say that apart from the logistics challenges of arranging vaccinations across combat frontlines, Syria faces the additional hurdle of international financial sanctions.
Syria was hard hit by the pandemic last year during two spikes in infections in August and December, and health workers cite a rise in cases since February.
Syria has recorded 51,580 cases of COVID-19, but the actual number is likely much higher due to limited testing supplies, U.N. officials says.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi. Editing by Mark Potter)