Assessing Syria's Basic Health Care Needs In Wartime

Mar 31, 2013
Originally published on March 31, 2013 10:25 am
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Abdulghani Sankari is a doctor who grew up in Syria. He's been living and working in Detroit now for the past 13 years. But this past January, Dr. Sankari visited his homeland and he found that the country's entire health care system has essentially been destroyed. Sankari and a team from the Syrian American Medical Society visited hospitals on the Syrian border, in Turkey and Jordan, to bring medical aid to those caught up in the war. The team also managed to get inside northwest Syria. Dr. Sankari described what he saw there.

DR. ABDULGHANI SANKARI: The minute you cross the Syrian borders, you start to see refugees scattered very close to the Turkish borders. They're in very basic tents, sometimes just without any shelter. They're mostly women and children without any sometimes even food or clean water. As you go deeper, you start to see more kind of normal life. You see people walking in the street. You would be amazed how people got used to bombing in the background, so you can hear also bombing in the background. But also when we visited a hospital there, we were shocked with the volume of patients coming there. And it's unexpected that we're not only seeing trauma and casualties but also start to see influx of patients with chronic illnesses, with usual kind of bronchitis, dental abscess and hypertension that used to go to different private clinics or government hospitals. But because of the collapse of the health care system in Syria, they start to go to the alternative, which is the new field hospital that many organizations start to help in supporting to fill the gap in the health need.

MARTIN: So, you're saying that not only are there the obvious victims of just the war itself, the conflict itself, but because the medical system has been so debilitated that people with just chronic illnesses aren't getting basic medical care.

SANKARI: Yes, correct. In one of our hospitals, you see on a daily basis average, like, 60 patients, and 50 of them are with chronic illnesses. Some of them, they need even dental care that is lacking. And it start to emerge also a lot of infectious disease that almost were eliminated a decade ago, such as typhoid, even a lot of cases of TB.

MARTIN: We should also note that Syria, as I understand it, used to have one of the best health care systems in the Middle East. Is that right?

SANKARI: It is advanced in the way that there is a lot of skilled doctors. It's estimated that there is 30,000 physicians in Syria. Similarly, there is around 30,000 nurse. There is around 50 percent of the hospitals are government-supported and the rest are private. They are pretty much very busy and the skill to take care of a lot of cases, including tertiary care. But since the conflict start and the war escalated, the health care system in general collapsed. People scared to go to hospital and a lot of physicians fled. In fact, it's estimated that only around 5,000 physicians remain inside Syria right now.

MARTIN: Are doctors being targeted in particular in any way?

SANKARI: Actually, one of the physicians that we met, he said it is worse to carry a stethoscope or gauze than to carry a rifle or a gun in Syria because a crime to a system medically needed treatments because they think that is supporting the uprising. And a lot of physicians - it's estimated around 120 physicians have been killed since March 2011. Many hundreds are actually missing, and we think that they are either killed or in prisons.

MARTIN: You have lived in the United States for more than a decade now, but you did grow up in Syria. You still have family there. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how they have been affected by the conflict.

SANKARI: Well, every person of Syrian descent have been affected. I can't imagine any family in Syria right now is not affected by this war. On a personal level, my cousin was killed a few months ago while he was in his neighborhood. All of the sudden, somebody shot him in the head, and he never been participating in any demonstration or anything related to the violence. This underscore the immense violence problem that affecting every single civilian, regardless of their background. And people are scared. The rest of my family are, in general, displaced internally, mostly because they don't want to leave. This is their country. This is their houses and they want to stay until the end and to see peace coming back to their homeland.

MARTIN: Abdulghani Sankari is a doctor based in Detroit. He is also a vice president of the Syrian American Medical Society. He recently traveled inside Syria. He joined us from Detroit. Dr. Sankari, thanks so much for talking with us.

SANKARI: Thank you very much.


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