Syrians suffering from chronic illnesses such as cancers, heart disease and diabetes are among the forgotten victims of the two-year conflict, says Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada executive director Stephen Cornish, who returned from Syria recently.
“People are slowing dying of cancer because they can’t get their oncology treatment; there are no dialysis or oncology wards,” Mr. Cornish said of the situation in northern Syria.
According to the World Health Organization , there are 168 medicines that will be “urgently needed” over the next 12 months, including 92 essential drugs and 33 cancer treatments. Insulin, oxygen, anesthetics, serums and intravenous fluids are no longer available in many parts of the country.
Before the crisis, more than 90 per cent of medicines consumed in Syria were locally produced. Today, the national production has been reduced by 90 per cent, aid organizations say.
The majority of medicines for the national market were produced in Aleppo. But since July the city has experienced some of the most violent urban combat of any major Syrian city. This has resulted in the destruction of factories in and around the city that produce pharmaceuticals. Even in the months before the fighting, workers had been unable to reach their places of employment because of government checkpoints and security fears.
Government forces are also alleged to have targeted medical centres in the city. In November, the Dar al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo was shelled. It is the first-aid nerve centre for rebels and civilians in east Aleppo. Syrian government jets have pounded the hospital several times, destroying key equipment and medicines in clear violations of the laws of war.
MSF worked in Damascus until April, 2011, when it was told to shut down operations as protests against Bashar al-Assad’s government began fanning out across the country. Today, it works several field units in the country’s north, where Mr. Assad forces have been driven out. However, the organization still sends aid to government-controlled areas. MSF has a staff of more than 500 operating in the region, with around 220 of those in rebel-controlled areas of Syria.
Three MSF units, including a burns and orthopedics unit, are currently opening inside the country and staff members in Toronto say they hope to double the number of hospitals and outreach centres in anticipation for summer.
“If people are not emergency cases they can’t get help. These people are wasting away and dying,” Mr. Cornish said.
When in Syria he met an oncology patient who fled her home and was living out of a school, but because she didn’t require emergency care she couldn’t get treatment anywhere, he said.
“Her husband slowly watches her die day by day.”
With the high temperatures summer brings fast approaching, “There are real problems with getting ready for summer; infectious diseases, diarrhea, open sewers, 12-15 people in a tent, no vaccinations,” said Mr. Cornish.
And his frustration with international responses to the growing humanitarian catastrophe is keen.
“We look at the conflict with this big stalemate lens believing that everything is frozen. Everything is not frozen,” he said. “The conflict is moving around and inflicting its suffering on new areas, on new places.”