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Lebanon News

Risks high, but actual disease outbreaks among Syrian refugees low

  • File - Syrian refugee children pose near their tent camp on the outskirts of Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon, Monday, July 29, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: While Syrian refugees may indeed face greater risks of contracting communicable diseases, misinformation pertaining to the nature and extent of these illnesses has been rife. “The living conditions of the refugees can obviously trigger and escalate the spread of communicable diseases,” Colin Lee, country director of International Medical Corps, one of the leading health NGOs working with the refugee community, told The Daily Star.

But he also pointed out that “there has been a large amount of misinformation relating to communicable diseases over recent months.”

Such misinformation has ranged from exaggeration to outright fabrication in some cases.

Leishmaniasis, a treatable parasitic skin disease spread by sand flies, has since early 2013 been identified in refugee communities. However, IMC told The Daily Star that the incidence rate for the disease was still below the normal level for the Syrian population.

The number of cases is also not nearly as high as Lebanese government officials previously reported to the media.

In May, MP Atef Majdalani, chair of the parliamentary health committee, told The Daily Star that some 660 Leishmaniasis cases had been identified. But the latest figures from the Health Ministry place the number of leishmaniasis cases reported since January 2013 at just 400, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Joelle Eid said.

Of these, the vast majority have been cases of cutaneous leishmaniasis, with just a handful of visceral leishmaniasis cases receiving treatment.

The cutaneous version causes skin sores, but the visceral variety is much more serious, affecting internal organs such as the spleen, liver and bone marrow. A Health Ministry Department of Communicable Diseases report last month said two cases of visceral leishmaniasis were being treated at Rafik Hariri Hospital in Beirut. The report also said there was just one known Lebanese affected by leishmaniasis.

International Medical Corps and other agencies working in the sector are engaged in ongoing awareness campaigns to prevent and limit the spread of the skin disease.

Similar initiatives are underway to tackle lice and scabies in refugee communities where large numbers are living in close quarters in temporary or makeshift accommodation.

While IMC’s Lee also highlighted that many of the children arriving from Syria had missed out on receiving vaccinations due to issues with availability, transportation and storage within the violence-wracked state, massive outbreaks of childhood diseases in Lebanon have not resulted.

Both IMC and the UNHCR said they knew of no new confirmed cases of polio in Lebanon since the refugee influx began. According to IMC, the last known polio case in the country was in 2002.

Cases of measles have been reported, with 1,427 Lebanese and 152 Syrians affected since January, the UNHCR said, citing government figures. IMC added that the majority of those affected were children, but also pointed out that the Health Ministry had announced the number of measles cases reported as below the normal annual rate and thus not representative of a major risk.

Efforts are ongoing to ensure that the rate of infection remains low. The UNHCR, the coordinating body for the Syrian refugee emergency response, reports that so far some 700,000 Syrian and Lebanese children have received at least one of either measles vaccination, polio vaccine or a vitamin A supplement from UNICEF in partnership with the Health Ministry and World Health Organization.

Tuberculosis has been identified with the Syrian refugee population, although the UNHCR has it does not have exact figures for the number of cases since cases are immediately referred to the Health Ministry. IMC noted there had been an increase in the number of antibiotic resistant cases of Tuberculosis, but highlighted that the Health Ministry had a protocol system in place and was treating all cases.

As for cholera, which has been rumored to exist within the refugee population, both IMC and the UNHCR are clear: There have been no confirmed cases since the refugee influx began.

Reports of cases of smallpox are also dismissed by IMC: The disease has not been seen in Lebanon since 1978. However, the NGO does note that chickenpox cases have been reported, but that this is normal among both Lebanese and Syrian populations.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 19, 2013, on page 4.
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