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With inspectors starting work on the disabling and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the international community must now focus on improving access to aid in Syria for the country’s most vulnerable people.
Sixty per cent of hospitals in Syria have been either destroyed or seriously damaged and over 15,000 physicians have been forced to leave the country, so aid is crucial for providing Syrians with the care and protection they need as the war continues.
But the Syrian government has imposed restrictions on cross-border assistance, especially to opposition-controlled areas, which is having devastating effects on the distribution of medical supplies and resources.
The UN Security Council released a presidential statement at the beginning of October calling on all parties in the conflict in Syria to facilitate safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid throughout the country, and this needs to be acted upon as the medical situation in the region worsens.
“Much more needs to be done to ensure people inside Syria can access aid and healthcare,” says Leigh Daynes, Executive Director of Doctors of the World UK. “Our volunteer medics are doing the best they can but, even though we do have workers inside Syria, they’re powerless to help many who desperately need them in some parts of the country."
Doctors of the World has been working with Syrian nurses and doctors in camps in the North Idlib area of Syria since October 2012. The ongoing violence in the region and the deteriorating healthcare conditions have meant that agencies such as Doctors of the World, which can work inside the country, have intensified their work. But serious challenges remain with limited resources.
“A field hospital is basically a room, 15-20 metre-squared, with very simple equipment,” says a doctor in Damascus supported by Doctors of the World. “Doctors cannot give all the care needed there and perform some simple operations to get out bullets and pieces of bombs, just to keep the wounded people alive. Then, we try to find another place that can take care of the patients more efficiently, which has better equipment.”
Syria’s broken infrastructure poses a serious threat to public health and Syrian lives. More than five million people are in need of vaccination or treatment inside Syria, and aid restrictions are compounding difficulties in treating and preventing common contagious diseases.
Recent evidence shows that there is also a burgeoning mental health crisis in the refugee camps. Refugees will have often experienced or witnessed extreme violence, making cases of post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety all the more prevalent. For these reasons Doctors of the World has made mental health support a priority in the refugee camps in the region.
“In the Zaatari camp in Jordan outreach workers go from tent to tent to identify people with potential mental health problems who they then refer to the two psychologists working for us,” says Paola Paoletti, mental health coordinator for Doctors of the World in Jordan. “We’re also training doctors to deal with mental health issues, drug delivery and so on but there’s a lot of stigma around mental health so we have to adapt western approaches so they are suitable.”
But to give aid agencies the best chance of improving the physical and mental health needs of those still inside Syria, the UN needs to translate its words on humanitarian aid access into action, before more lives are lost that could so easily have been saved.