Systematic attacks on Syrian health facilities revealed

Syrian hospital doctors.jpg
Copyright: Teun Voeten / Panos

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  • Fighters ignore the safety of health personnel, patients and their families
  • Arab countries are most affected by attacks against healthcare facilities
  • UN resolution promises protection for civilians, but action on the ground is difficult

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Armed attacks targeting health facilities have increased and intensified recently in countries of conflict, according to a study released by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

During its research, the committee documented about 2,400 attacks in 11 countries over a span of three years. This means that there have been more than two attacks a day against patients, health personnel and facilities, the study found.

In Syria, the organisation Physicians for Human Rights created an interactive map, recording 36 attacks on 250 medical facilities. The attacks resulted in the death of 873 medical personnel since the beginning of the conflict, the study says.

Time Lapse: Attacks on medical facilities in Syria through April 2016

The organisation labelled the attacks a systematic destruction that was repeated in other areas, such as Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Gaza and the West Bank.

“The organisation's statistics show that Syria has become the most dangerous country in the region for patients and health personnel,” says Rana Sidani, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean.

  • Facts about hospital attacks

  • There have been around 2,400 attacks in 11 countries over a span of three years
  • Syria is the most dangerous place for patients and health personel
  • Only three of the hospitals attacked in Syria remain operational
  • There are only 50 doctors total in the city of Aleppo which has a population of 300,000

According to Sidani, only one-third of the hospitals that have been attacked remain operational, conditions due to the lack of medicines and health personnel. In addition, there is often a lack of electricity and potable water, she says.

The Red Cross notes that there have been at least 17 attacks on health facilities in Syria this year, the latest of which was the May bombing of Jebleh hospital in Latakia province, which killed more than 40 patients and family members along with a doctor and two nurses.

According to WHO statistics, 60 per cent of public hospitals in Syria have closed or are only partially operational. The same applies to public hospitals in conflict zones in Libya, where 60 per cent of hospitals are either closed or unreachable due to destruction of infrastructure, according to the statistics.

“There is a severe shortage in the number of physicians. For example, there are only fifty doctors in the city of Aleppo, a city inhabited by 300,000 people,” says Zaidoun al-Zoabi, the head of the Syrian Union of Medical Relief Organisations. “Moreover, there is a shortage in some specialties, such as ophthalmic surgeries and neurosurgery.”

Zoabi added that hospitals suffer from a severe shortage of medicine and nursing staff. The maintenance of medical equipment is almost non-existent, while always giving priority to emergency equipment, which led to neglecting chronic diseases, even the serious ones, such as cancer.
Overall, the Red Cross said, 19 countries around the world suffer regular attacks on health facilities.

On 3 May the Security Council of the United Nations adopted a call to protect civilians during armed conflicts. But according to Ahmed Albareda, a consultant hematologist in a medical centre in Sana'a, Yemen, the most significant challenge remains giving health and humanitarian assistance to people in besieged areas.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk.