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Doctors decry the breakdown of health care in war-torn Syria

Syrians giving birth, undergoing surgery without anesthetic

Topics: Access to Care, Quality, Performance Improvement, Appropriateness, Infection Control, Mortality

September 18, 2013

World health leaders this week pleaded with Syrian officials to allow medical personnel into the country, writing in an open letter in The Lancet that the nation's once-sophisticated health care system is "at [the] breaking point."

Syrian residents are struggling to find access to any health care in the war-torn country, a group of 55 doctors and medical professionals wrote in the journal. More than half of the country's hospitals were destroyed or severely damaged, 469 health professionals have been imprisoned, and about 15,000 doctors have been forced to flee in the attacks. There were 5,000 physicians in the city of Aleppo before the conflict started; only 36 remain today. Parts of Syria have no medical care at all because of the "deliberate and systematic ... attacks" on medical facilities and staff, the letter states.

Moreover, the Syrian government is preventing medical aid personnel from entering the country, and rebel forces are blocking medical supply convoys.

"We are appalled by the lack of access to health care for affected civilians, and by the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and personnel," the health care leaders write. "It is our professional, ethical, and moral duty to provide treatment and care to anyone in need."

The decimation of Syria's health care system means that horrific injuries are going untreated, women are giving birth without medical care, and patients are battling cancer without medications, according to letter signatory Hany El Banna, founder of the Humanitarian Forum and Islamic Relief.

Syrians who do have access to health professionals often go without necessary supplies, El Banna adds. Some patients have undergone C-sections and amputations without anesthetic. "It's hell on earth," El Banna says.

The letter urges the Syrian government and rebel groups to lift restrictions on humanitarian aid group and the United Nations to increase support to Syria's medical networks. The health leaders also call on the governments backing the Syrian government or the rebels to an end to attacks on medical personnel.

"As doctors and health professionals we urgently demand that medical colleagues in Syria be allowed and supported to treat patients, save lives, and alleviate suffering without the fear of attacks or reprisals," the leaders write (Medpage Today, 9/17; Reuters/Fox News, 9/17; Siddique, The Guardian, 9/16).

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