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In Syria, deadly diseases add to people’s miseries

March 11, 2013

A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows a wounded Syrian girl lying on a stretcher at a hospital following a bomb blast in Damascus on October 31, 2012. -AFP/File Photo

ALEPPO, Syria: Like sardines packed into a can, men, women and children share space in a tiny emergency ward. Some cry, and a few others bear the pain quietly, but their facial expressions say it all. 

In this Aleppo field hospital, two middle-aged persons clad in white overalls separate the ill and injured patients after a hurried, basic check-up.

Victims of bomb or artillery shrapnel-inflicted injuries are treated in an adjacent emergency surgery room with the bare minimum of the required medical equipment.  Amongst the patients is a six-year old visiting the hospital for his amputated hand, due a wound worsened by gangrene. Others wait for medicine to arrive in the currently almost empty pharmacy.

Opposite to the operation theatre, the heart-wrenching cries of children stand out from the hustle and bustle of patients and the medical staff.

A group of praying people stand around a 10-year-old girl. Two men and a woman, presumably her mother, hold Huda’s hands and feet while the doctor inserts an injection in her face.

A closer glance shows red spots visible on her face and arms. Soon the girl falls unconscious.

Huda is just one amongst dozens in the room suffering from cutaneous leishmaniasis, locally called ‘Habat Halab’ or Aleppo boil. The symptoms of leishmaniasis are skin sores which erupt weeks to months after the person is bitten by sand flies. The patient suffers from fever, and the virus damages the spleen and liver as well as causing anemia. Delay or lack of treatment may cause death.

According to Syrian medical volunteers, over 300 cases of leishmaniasis are reported daily in Aleppo from areas like west of al-Zahraa, Quiq River basin and the countryside regions of al-Bab and Safira. The infection has spread mainly among children.

Similar cases are being increasingly reported from other cities such as Deir al-Zour and Homs.  Since the Syrian government infrastructure collapsed, provision of vaccines to field hospitals such as this one is impossible.

"The worst seems yet to come, as the hospital is short of the medicine (needed) and there are no indications as to when supplies would reach,” says Dr Hossam Ahmad.

He explains, “We are really panicking here as the numbers of infected patients are on the rise with no medicines available to treat them as the city is under siege.”

"The international community, however, can send doctors, medical equipment and medicines to the areas under the control of the Free Syrian Army (the rebel troops)” Yasser Najjar, an important opposition figure, points out – the Aleppo Boil may otherwise have taken even more lives than it already has.

Najar says the answer to the medicine shortage is not very easy.

“The drugs are available in Syria’s black market at high prices.”  Though one pack of injections costs $7 it seems too expensive for the international community to arrange it,” says Najjar. He pins his hopes on help from individual donors abroad.

"There is an immediate need to improve the health situation through sterilisation, spraying insecticides and removing corpses and garbage,” Ahmad adds.

Another Syrian, who refuses to give his name, disagrees: “Our situation will only improve when the fighting stops.”

Ahmad and his colleague are suddenly distracted by the cries of a young man who is brought on a stretcher with his hands and face virtually skinless.

After about 10 minutes, the doctor comes out to inform the family that it is too late –the disease has spread to his organs after depleting his skin.

Though aerial attacks by fighter jets and SCUD missiles are widely reported, the world does not know much about the poisonous gases released by bombs and missiles. People get infected with diseases while trying to pull out injured people or bodies from the rubble after aerial attacks.

It’s no surprise that the Aleppo Boil is the disease responsible for the most deaths in the city:

A walk in Aleppo’s streets exposes one to a humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen, given horrific hygienic conditions amid decaying human and animal corpses, and garbage heaps blanketed with sand flies and other bugs.

Since March 15, 2011, when a peaceful political uprising in began, the Syrian government’s all-out trigger-happy response has claimed over 80,000 lives with 1 million citizens taking refuge in neighboring countries.

Aleppo, alongside Damascus, is one of the most ancient and largest cities in Syria. Today its serenity and ethno-religious plurality has been replaced by destruction and disease.

“There is a serious a dearth of doctors here too,” says Jamal Ishaq, a car mechanic who is now a trained paramedic. “We can work as nursing staff with some basic training but cannot perform operations and prescribe medicine to patients.”

In the absence of specialists or even general practitioner physicians, the field hospitals are being run by paramedics. Ahmad Abdullah says, “We are trying to do our best but we seem to fail for the lack of capable experts to treat various kinds of illnesses, infections and injuries.”

In volatile regions, the regime forces attack hospitals, arrest employees, and particularly kill doctors for providing services to wounded civilians.

Health infrastructure has been Bashar Al-Assad’s forces’ special soft target, with “half the country’s 88 public hospitals partly or completely destroyed, and 23 of them not functioning at all.”

The UN health body’s month old data shows that of 1,919 health centres, 186 have been damaged, and 106 are no longer functional.

All that Aleppo can look forward to now, perhaps, is help from experts in the medical field from around the world – including Pakistan.

Maryam Hasan is a young journalist, whose family struggled against Hafiz Al-Assad’s tyrannical rule and policies. She is using a pen-name due to security reasons.

The views expressed by this writer and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.