Report: More than 4.3M Syrian children need humanitarian aid

The country's three-year war has taken a devastating toll on children’s health, according to charity Save the Children

A health worker administers polio vaccine to a child as part of a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign in Damascus.
Omar Sanadiki/AP

Syria's civil war has left the country's health system so severely crippled that some patients are "opting to be knocked out with metal bars for lack of anesthesia," according to a new report by international charity Save the Children.

The report, A Devastating Toll, details the impact of three years of war on the health of the country's children and adds that more than 10,000 children have been lost as a direct result of the violence.

"We received a little girl with critical injuries; we could do nothing but wait for her to die because we didn't have the equipment or the medicines. Till now I can't remove her face from my mind," said one health worker identified in the report only as Anas.

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"The extent of the decline in Syria's health system is demonstrated in many horrific ways, including children having limbs amputated because the clinics they present to don't have necessary equipment to treat them," said the report, which paints a gruesome picture of the dire health care crisis.

"Newborn babies [are] dying in their incubators due to power cuts; in some cases, patients [are] opting to be knocked out with metal bars for lack of anesthesia; parents [are] arriving at hospital to find no medical staff and hooking up children themselves to intravenous drips."

Children's lives in Syria are on the line before they are even born, the report said, with about 4.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance.

Syrian officials were not immediately available to comment.

The conflict, which has left more than 140,000 people dead and forced at least 1.2 million children to flee their country, began in March 2011 as a protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad's government. It has since degenerated into a civil war, drawing in neighboring countries that oppose or support the regime and the rebels fighting it.

The humanitarian crisis has impacted every corner of the country to some degree, but certain rebel-held towns and neighborhoods have been especially devastated by the regime's stranglehold tactic of cutting off the delivery of food and medical aid entirely.

On Monday, Amnesty International accused Assad's forces of perpetrating war crimes as part of a siege in Yarmouk, south of Damascus, which has killed nearly 200 people, mostly by starvation.

"Hundreds of civilian residents of Yarmouk have been killed, wounded or have perished as a result of deliberate starvation and destruction of their means of support, direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks," the group said.

At least 60 percent of the roughly 20,000 residents remaining in Yarmouk are suffering from malnutrition, Amnesty said. Many women have died in childbirth and at least 18 children have died since the siege began. Most hospitals have closed and there are reports that rebel groups have looted already dwindling medical supplies from the hospitals that are still running.

But Yarmouk is not alone in its suffering.

"Since the outbreak of war three years ago, it is probable that several thousands of children have already died as a result of greatly reduced access to treatment for life-threatening chronic diseases like cancer, epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and kidney failure," it said.

"This is more than a crisis. It is the threatened collapse of an entire health system, which endangers the lives and well-being of millions of children."

Vaccine programs in Syria have collapsed, with a peacetime coverage rate of 91 percent falling to 68 percent just a year after the conflict began, said the charity. It said this rate was likely to be far lower today. Deadly diseases that were practically unheard of in the years before the conflict, such as measles and meningitis, are also on the rise.

Even polio, which was eradicated across Syria in 1995, is now being carried by up to 80,000 children across the country. This figure, the charity said, is so high that medical experts have raised concerns about a potential international spread of the virus.

"The breakdown of Syria's vaccination program has resulted in the re-emergence of polio in Syria," the report said. "Children born after 2010 have not been vaccinated for two years. There have been heavy restrictions in access to vaccines and health workers have not been able to reach children in need."

Factors including overcrowding and poor living conditions, water quality and sanitation have meant skin diseases including Leishmaniasis — a parasitic disease transmitted by sandflies — have spread. There were fewer than 3,000 cases before the war, and now there are more than 100,000.

Save the Children echoed the call for humanitarian groups to be given freedom of access to all areas and aid to be allowed across conflict lines, after ceasefires if necessary. Efforts to secure such access have been largely in vain due to the intransigence of Assad and his Russian backers, who claim that aid would support what they call a "terrorist" insurgency.

"Immediate investment in, and access to, child-focused health services is needed to ensure that children are not dying from preventable and treatable injuries and illnesses," Save the Children said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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