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The Globe and Mail

Health care has become a major target in Syria’s conflict

Right from the start of the mass uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad two years ago, Syrian government authorities targeted people providing medical assistance to protesters. It was systematic.

Pharmacies in districts where protests took place were raided and proprietors were threatened against helping people who demonstrated in the streets. Hospitals that treated protesters and rebel fighters were closed down and doctors arrested and often tortured.

More recently, as reported in the Globe in November , the targeting of buildings – often with air strikes – where medical aid is carried out remains a key Syrian government objective, though Damascus denies this.

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As a result, the country's health-care infrastructure lies in ruins. In parts of the country where there is no longer government presence, people requiring health assistance are almost entirely dependent on international aid organizations for support.

"In heavily affected areas such as Aleppo and Deir Ezzor, reaching some hospitals is also a challenge. We have been able to channel some medical assistance to these areas through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but much more needs to be done," an International Committee of the Red Cross health co-ordinator said recently.

And in Assad-controlled Syria, security forces and secret police keep close watch over anyone who has access to or is trained in giving medical aid.

Furthermore, Paulo Pinheiro of the United Nations commission of inquiry for Syria described on Monday "the use of medical care as a tactic of war" as one of the most alarming recent developments. But his investigations blame rebel forces as well as government troops for using force against civilian targets.

Syria's ill-health by numbers:

  • Almost 55 per cent of public hospitals, 10 per cent of health centres and 58 per cent of ambulances, have been damaged or destroyed.
  • At least 31 per cent of public hospitals are out of service.
  • 111 new cases of leishmaniasis – a skin disease resembling leprosy – were reported earlier this month.
  • 86 new cases of suspected hepatitis A were reported in February.
  • Four million people inside Syria need help, says the UN.
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