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Syria’s Public Health Crisis: 1 Million Injured, Infectious Diseases On The Rise

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At least one million people have been wounded and 200,000 killed in Syria since the ongoing civil war began in March 2011, the World Health Organization said Friday, adding that the years-long conflict has decimated the country’s once stable healthcare system and created a hotbed for disease.

“In Syria, they have a million people injured as a direct result of the war,” Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s Syria representative, told Reuters. “You can see it in the country when you travel around. You see a lot of amputees. This is the biggest problem.”

According to Hoff, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is preventing aid convoys with medical supplies, such as bandages and syringes, from crossing into some of the hardest-hit areas. Assad’s regime, which demands to sign off on aid convoys, has said they are blocking the supplies because they could be used to help insurgents.

“What has been a problem is the regularity of supply,” Hoff said. “The (government) approvals are sporadic.”

Compounding things even further is the collapse of the country’s public health infrastructure, which was once a robust system of public clinics, hospitals and highly trained professionals, but now can barely carry out its most basic functions, Hoff said.

According to a 2012 report by the WHO, fighting between Syrian government and opposition forces has significantly damaged more than half of the country’s nearly 90 public hospitals, forcing a third of them to close and leaving most of the rest with limited or no capacity. Fuel and electricity shortages have further restricted hospital operations. As a result, “the hospitals and health centers that are operating are overwhelmed with patients,” says the WHO report.

Additionally, nearly 70 percent of healthcare professionals have fled since the beginning of the conflict. The few Syrian healthcare workers left — who are targets of snipers on the road — often cannot access their workplace due to irregular public transportation and blocked or unsafe roads. And with 78 percent of the country’s ambulances damaged and more than half out of service, transporting patients with urgent conditions is out of the question in many areas.

Another major problem, said Hoff, is the disruption of the country’s vaccination programs, which are critical for preventing the spread of diseases. According to the WHO, measles vaccination coverage has fallen from over 90 percent pre-war to just 65 percent — far below the critical threshold for achieving herd immunity from the highly contagious disease. During the same time period, from 2010 to 2012, the coverage rate for the polio vaccine fell from over 90 percent to approximately 68 percent.

Despite the WHO’s delivery of more than 13.5 million treatments of medication and supplies this year, typhoid, hepatitis, and tuberculosis still have a stronghold on much of the region, especially in rebel-held areas. In 2014 alone, around 6,500 Syrian children were diagnosed with typhoid, 4,200 suffered from measles, and Syrian aid workers in Damascus said that tuberculosis was also spreading in the capital due to poor sanitary conditions and a government siege, according to Reuters. Among the most troubling findings is the resurgence of polio, which reemerged in Syria in October 2013 — more than a decade after the country eradicated the disease.

According to Hoff, WHO’s office in Syria will require over $116 million to continue to provide life-saving medical treatments and improve access to health services across the war-torn country. “Without these resources people will be unable to access life-saving medicines, medical supplies and equipment,” said Hoff, warning that the needs were sharply increasing and the lives of thousands of Syrians were at danger.

Even the nearly 9 million Syrians who fled their homes since 2011 can’t seem to escape the harrowing effects of the conflict. The World Food Program (WFP) recently suspended food aid to more than 1.7 million refugees living in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt because of unfulfilled cash pledges.

“A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries,” WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin told reporters. “The suspension of WFP food assistance will be disastrous for many already suffering families.”

 

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