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Column Full, unimpeded access for all doctors is immediately needed in Syria

It is unacceptable that medical staff are being denied access to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War, writes Irish-Libyan doctor Dr Fatima Hamroush.

THE CONFLICT IN Syria has developed into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War. 110,000 people – mostly civilians – have been killed, and many more wounded or tortured. Communities and families have been torn apart, with millions displaced from their homes since the beginning of the conflict.

Civilians cannot access healthcare due to the systematic targeting of medical professionals, facilities, patients and healthcare workers cannot access the areas in need and it is estimated that half of the Syrian population will require humanitarian aid by the end of 2013.

Almost 57 per cent of Syrian hospitals have been either destroyed or greatly damaged, while almost 500 healthcare workers have been reported imprisoned. Makeshift clinics have become full trauma centres struggling to cope with the injured and sick, while being targeted by all fighting sides. It is a doctor’s professional, ethical and moral duty to provide impartial treatment and care to anyone in need.

Restricting the access of Syria’s medical services

Following recent reports on restricted access of Syria’s medical services to the areas in need, as a doctor and former Minister of Health in Libya, I can only reflect with empathy what my medical colleagues in Syria must be undertaking. Furthermore, I can identify well with the suffering and helplessness of the international and local medical professionals.

During my tenure as Minister for Health in Libya, I had the chance to witness directly the consequences of restrictions imposed by the former regime on health workers during a crisis, and although Libya’s eastern border was unrestricted during the conflict, allowing many medical aid organisations to enter Libya just a few weeks into the uprising, the damage caused cannot be reflected in statistics or field reports.

Libya’s conflict lasted eight months and the new government was in effect directly afterwards to build the nation’s foundations and recuperate the damage caused and even then, the impact of the conflict on lives and healthcare was immense. It is a source of national security that is often taken for granted here in Europe.

Syria’s conflict, however, is ongoing since fighting began over two years ago in March 2011.
Its borders are heavily restricted for international aid organisations and the UN has had to halve the number of its aid workers in the country due recurrent attacks on them as well having to contend with a lack of resources.

Furthermore, after almost three years of conflict, the Syrian population has become vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as dysentery, cholera and hepatitis, and with the lack of medical pharmaceuticals there has been an alarming increase in cases of acute diarrhoea.

In some areas, children born during the conflict have had no vaccinations, meaning that the potential of an epidemic is ripe. Moreover, with the Syrian health system at breaking point, patients battling chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and renal failure are unable to access essential medical care.

Protection of health workers

While a political solution still needs to be resolved to end the crisis, governments around the world can meanwhile press for the protection of health workers in addition to granting access to the United Nations, the Red Crescent and other humanitarian organisations into Syrian borders. This is the least provision of security for Syrian civilians affected by the crisis.

In an effort to get the required medical care to the Syrian people, we, a coalition of influential doctors from around the world, launched this initiative calling on all parties of the conflict to cease targeting medical facilities, and urging the UN Security Council and governments with influence to do all they can to enable humanitarian access, including across borders. Medical aid access must be authorised immediately and impartially to all who need it.

The Syrian Government and all armed parties must refrain from attacking health professionals, patients, medical facilities, ambulances and supplies. Medical neutrality must be recognised by all fighting factions and upheld.

The doctors’ initiative also called on governments allied with President Assad to demand that the Syrian government lift restrictions on UN and humanitarian operations and allow medical care and assistance to reach Syrians, whether crossing front lines or across Syria’s borders. The UN must scale up its operations to ensure a response that is more commensurate with the need, including in opposition areas which are currently neglected and in dire need of aid.

The international community must contribute generously and immediately to humanitarian assistance in order to scale up the response in line with the needs of Syrians. All parties involved in the conflict must respect medical neutrality and refrain from attacking hospitals, medical facilities, health professionals and patients.

Syria is almost certainly the most dangerous place in the world for a doctor to be in, and it is in conflicts like this where the world’s decision makers can unite to show true leadership and address the suffering of civilians. There is no acceptable reason why full, unimpeded access for all doctors needed in Syria should not be granted immediately.

Dr Fatima Hamroush is an Irish-based ophthalmologist. She served as Libya’s first health minister after the overthrow of Gaddafi and returned to Drogheda last year.

An open letter to The Lancet recently signed by a group of 55 doctors and medical professionals warns that Syria’s healthcare system is at “breaking point” because of attacks on hospitals and humanitarian organisations.

[Main pic: A Syrian doctor touches the forehead of a wounded man lying on a bed at a field hospital in a village turned into a battlefield in Idlib province, northern Syria. (AP Photo)]

Read: Almost 80 per cent against Irish support for war in Syria
Explainer: What are Irish troops doing in Syria?
Column: Syrians are convinced they’re considered ‘expendable’… wouldn’t you be?

Dr Fatima Hamroush
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