BEIRUT

Middle East

Health sector collapse sees dramatic rise in death toll

Rada Hallabi, 4, who is sick with diabetes, lies on a blanket in a refugee camp on the border with Turkey, near Azaz village, Syria, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012. (AP Photo / Manu Brabo)

BEIRUT: Deaths from chronic diseases such as cancer and epilepsy have risen dramatically during Syria’s civil war and are among the conflict’s biggest killers as fighting blocks access to hospitals and medicine, a report published Monday says. With hospitals and primary health clinic regularly shelled, and ambulances occasionally directly targeted, the country’s medical infrastructure has all but been destroyed. Civilians whose conditions were easily treatable in peacetime are unable to visit a doctor or find basic drugs needed to survive, leaving thousands to die, the report by Save the Children says.

Before the war, health care was heavily subsidized by the Syrian state and many medicines were virtually free. The country also had its own flourishing drug industry, producing 90 percent of its own medicines.

The report, entitled “A devastating toll: the impact of three years of war on Syria’s health system,” says Syria’s health system has been set back by decades: Some “60 percent of hospitals and 38 percent of primary health facilities have been damaged or destroyed, and drug production has fallen by 70 percent.”

The U.N. said that in the second half of 2013 alone over half a million Syrians required treatment for chronic diseases. Save the Children’s report notes that there are an estimated 70,000 Syrians who are unable to receive cancer treatment.

“I met a father looking for drugs for his son who had leukemia. I tried to secure these drugs for him but I couldn’t. These drugs are so expensive,” a doctor says in the report. “His father told me that he had been everywhere in Syria but he could not find the drugs as they were only ever available at the main hospitals, and most in this area have been destroyed.”

The NGO says “200,000 Syrians have died of treatable chronic diseases such as cancer, asthma and diabetes. ... It is probable that many thousands of these were children. No longer able to buy medication or access regular medical care, everyday conditions are now fatal.” Activist groups estimate that 140,000 people have died as a result of fighting.

Compounding the challenges is a major shortfall in qualified medical practitioners. Nearly half of Syria’s doctors are believed to have fled the country, and in Aleppo, only 36 remain of a prewar total of 5,000.

This exodus has left junior doctors to take up the reigns. Without equipment and proper training, inexperienced doctors have taken to increasingly extreme measures to keep patients alive.

In one instance, a doctor told Save the Children that his team used car batteries to power homemade dialysis machines. Another, who was only one year out of medical school, said he had performed hundreds of surgical procedures, although surgery was not his specialization.

Other stories emerged of patients being knocked out with metal bars because of a lack of anesthetic, old clothes functioning as bandages and a dentist acting as the only practitioner in a medical team.

“This humanitarian crisis has fast become a health crisis,” Save the Children’s Regional Director Roger Hearn says. “Simply finding a doctor is a matter of luck; finding one with the necessary equipment and medication to provide proper treatment has become almost impossible. The desperate measures to which medical personnel are resorting to to keep children alive are increasingly harrowing.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

Deaths from chronic diseases such as cancer and epilepsy have risen dramatically during Syria's civil war and are among the conflict's biggest killers as fighting blocks access to hospitals and medicine, a report published Monday says. With hospitals and primary health clinic regularly shelled, and ambulances occasionally directly targeted, the country's medical infrastructure has all but been destroyed. Civilians whose conditions were easily treatable in peacetime are unable to visit a doctor or find basic drugs needed to survive, leaving thousands to die, the report by Save the Children says.

Before the war, health care was heavily subsidized by the Syrian state and many medicines were virtually free. The country also had its own flourishing drug industry, producing 90 percent of its own medicines.


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