The Silent Killer: Health Crisis is Staggering in Syria

May 01, 2014

This Syrian father is grateful his daughter was able to receive prompt medical care. Over half of the country’s hospitals have been destroyed or severely damaged in the civil war.

Dr. Samir* is a physician in need of a physician.

During his residency training as a general practitioner in Syria before the war, he treated patients for an assortment of ailments ranging from respiratory infections to high blood pressure and stiff joints.

Antibiotics and pain medications were readily available. So were children´s vaccines. An infected cut on a finger or a sprained foot might be the worst injuries he treated in any given day.

Like others in his profession, the young doctor found great satisfaction in helping others, and he looked forward to a long and rewarding career.

Then everything changed.

When fighting broke out between government forces and various rebel factions three years ago, no place was safe. Hospitals, clinics, and doctors themselves became targets just for providing medical treatment to the wounded. Gunfire in the streets discouraged residents from making visits to doctor´s offices for routine checkups.

Dr. Samir´s case load started to drop off as some of his patients fled the country. Other families ran out of money and ceased to seek medical care unless they faced a dire emergency. For those who still rely on his services, he has precious little to offer them as medicine is as rare these days as a peaceful night´s sleep.

Now it is his own health that is in jeopardy.

Awaiting surgery

Since childhood, Dr. Samir has struggled with ear problems and suffered partial hearing loss. This year he developed another infection, but with a limited availability of antibiotics to treat it, the infection spread throughout his middle ear. Without immediate intervention, the infection could potentially advance to his brain and be life-threatening.

Dr. Samir is a friend of Christian Aid Mission and his father oversees a ministry we have assisted in Syria during the past 12 years. The family contacted Middle East Director Stephen Van Valkenburg and asked if Christian Aid could help with expenses.

Due to safety concerns, arrangements to transport Dr. Samir across the Syrian border into Jordan for surgery were nixed last month.

Prayers have been answered, as a surgeon was located in Damascus that can perform the mastoidectomy to remove the infection and hopefully save the hearing in Dr. Samir´s damaged ear. The procedure is scheduled for Thursday, May 1.

If all goes well, Dr. Samir will return to his medical practice in a matter of days. That´s good news for the doctor, but it´s even better news for his patients who might be hard-pressed to find a substitute.

Medical care collapse

A breakdown of the health care system in Syria is of no surprise to anyone, but its long-term ramifications are finally raising concerns among the international community.

Already an estimated 150,000 Syrians have been killed in the brutal civil war, and 9 million are internally displaced or living as refugees in other Middle Eastern countries. But what is most alarming is the secondary death toll—an additional 100,000 to 200,000 Syrians who have died because they lacked access to medical care.

These figures include women who die in child birth, heart attack victims, people who suffer from diabetes, kidney disease, and cancer, and children who succumb to diarrhea, pneumonia, and other treatable illnesses.

While the polio outbreak affecting 80,000 children has garnered much attention recently, communicable diseases like measles, hepatitis A, and typhoid are on the rise. Skin maladies are also rampant.

Attacks against medical institutions and personnel have only punctuated the crisis. According to the World Health Organization, over half of Syria´s hospitals have been destroyed or severely damaged.

Some 15,000 doctors have fled the country. Aleppo, Syria´s largest city, once flourished with 5,000 doctors offering their services to the public. Now there are less than 40.

In a March report by the group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), there were 20 separate attacks on medical facilities during the first 10 weeks of 2014 alone. As of March 5, “440 medical personnel had been killed since the beginning of the conflict, including 161 doctors, 90 nurses, 83 medics, and 45 pharmacists, among others,” the report stated.

Even if a doctor is available, medications and supplies often are not. Old clothes have been used for bandages. PHR noted that in some instances, patients have chosen to be “knocked out with a metal bar” because a surgeon had no anesthetics.

An assessment of 111 sub-districts in northern Syria found nearly 500,000 people are in acute need of health care. Another 2.8 million are in moderate need of medical assistance, according to PHR.

A patient receives treatment at a hospital in Damascus.

Christian Aid Mission wants to help

In the midst of such desperate needs, Christian Aid Mission is working with ministries in the region to bring help and hope through Jesus Christ to the suffering.

Dr. Samir and his father are among the courageous believers who have remained in Syria and are committed to sharing the gospel with their countrymen. Before the war, his father established an effective outreach to Muslims in their region.

Plans to build a community center and medical clinic were halted as the ministry focused its efforts on distributing food and other basic needs to displaced Syrian families.

As Dr. Samir prepares for his own surgery, he knows there are hundreds more who are not as fortunate. That´s disheartening for a health professional who took an oath to do all he could to save lives.

To assist medical workers like Dr. Samir in Syria, Christian Aid Mission wants to help another local ministry transport a 40-foot container of supplies into the country. The donated materials, including crutches, wheelchairs, and prosthetics, will be given to civilians left crippled or maimed by war violence.

“Doctors are really handicapped and limited as to what they can do,” said Van Valkenburg, who received the urgent request for Christian Aid´s assistance. “Once things calm down, whenever that is, lots of medical supplies will be brought into the country. But for now, it´s a bad situation there and any supplies that we can help get to the doctors will be hugely helpful to them.”

Van Valkenburg said the ministry needs about $11,000 to ship the items from Europe to the Middle East and then into Syria. Christian Aid is blessed to be able to work with this “boots on the ground” outreach that has the ability and connections to get materials across the border and dispensed to those who are most in need.

Last year the ministry transported shipments of New Testaments, food, and other emergency relief provided by Christian Aid for displaced families in Syria. In addition, the ministry has sent containers of supplies to refugees in Iraq and Jordan.

Christian Aid Mission has helped local ministries deliver clothing, food, and Bibles to Syrian families. Now we would like to assist a ministry that wants to transport a 40-foot container of medical supplies into the country.

Since the outbreak of war in March 2011, Christian Aid has helped ministries in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Greece address the needs of refugee families. As gospel workers like Dr. Samir respond with compassion, they see a deepening desire among the Syrians to experience God´s love and to hear His Word.

“Dr. Samir is a strong Christian who has stayed in Syria and will be an important person in the rebuilding of the country,” said Van Valkenburg. “Pray that in his lifetime this young doctor will be greatly used by God to bring spiritual and physical help to many of his people.”

There are thousands more Syrians like Dr. Samir who have pressing health issues. Many are not as fortunate and will never receive the medical assistance they need. Christian Aid wants to alleviate their suffering and bring hope to as many people as we can.

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* name changed to protect identity