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Syria’s Polio Outbreak Worsens Public Health Crisis


Red Crescent volunteers check medicine boxes donated by the IFRC at the Red Crescent pharmacy warehouse in the Rural Damascus branch. Photo: Ibrahim Malla, IFRC

...Medicines have been in very short supply and people are not able to pay for them.

A recent polio outbreak in eastern Syria has paralyzed at least ten children and escalated the need for increased medical capacity in the conflict zone.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent network has played an integral role in the effort to eradicate polio worldwide. Its volunteers ensure that vulnerable and hard-to-reach people receive the oral polio vaccine, regardless of location or political affiliation. But the recent conflict in Syria has proven dangerous for humanitarian workers. Despite the United Nations announcement that it will vaccinate 2.5 million children in Syria and more than eight million in the region, the organization has expressed deep concern that the vaccination effort may be hindered by chaos and violence.

The polio outbreak highlights an often forgotten toll of conflict: lack of access to medical care. Paying for medicine and medical treatment has become one of the most difficult issues that Syrians face. The local market has been severely affected and many medicines have become prohibitively expensive, as most of Syria’s pharmaceutical factories have been either destroyed or shut down during the conflict.

To improve access to medical care, small pharmacies have been added to many of the shelters throughout the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s branches and sub-branches in order to assist people directly.

For example, inside the warehouse at the Red Crescent’s Rural Damascus branch pharmacy, volunteers are unpacking 150 parcels of different medicines. The medicine will be used by the Rural Damascus polyclinic, mobile health units and health teams.

The polyclinic opened in 2008 and, at the time, mainly served refugees from Iraq. Times have changed and most of the patients are people who have been internally displaced as a result of the ongoing crisis in Syria.

“We thank everybody for their support and for the hand extended to help people in distress in Syria. Nevertheless, the needs are tremendously high. The number of displaced people inside Syria has now reached more than 5.5 million people,” says Dr. Abdul Rahman Attar, President of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The growing number of displaced people is reflected in the number of Syrians utilizing the Red Crescent’s clinics and pharmacies. “We used to have 100–150 patients every day. Now it’s three to four times that,” says Dr. Rami Hassan, a pharmacist at the Rural Damascus branch. One of the main obstacles the pharmacy faces is meeting patients’ needs. “There is a need for medicines for chronic illnesses and some expensive products, such as certain blood thinners, but also for common medicines such as aspirin.”

“What can I do with a patient who needs a medicine that is not available?” asks Dr. Sumaid from the clinic of internal medicine. “For example, some asthma medicines are so expensive that we are not able to provide our patients with them at all. We need medicines with a wide spectrum and in greater quantities.”

Unfortunately, it’s not always the medicine itself that causes a problem. “I come to this center to get my insulin, but the problem is that I have big difficulties to find the money for the syringes,” says Abu Salah, who suffers from diabetes.

Dr. Attar explains that this is a common issue. “Sometimes we are receiving part of the medicines required and the other parts are not supplied. Medicines have been in very short supply and people are not able to pay for them,” he adds.

To help ease this ongoing need, the Red Cross and Red Crescent network is supporting the Rural Damascus branch clinic with 600 categories of medicines; the other 350 drugs are bought by the pharmacy at the local market.

Tags: Syria.
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