Syria's killer diseases don't know there's a war: A mother's tale

"Can you please ask a doctor in America why my left eye has drooped and my lower lip has sagged? People tell me that there are good doctors in America."

My 62-year-old mother was asking me for help. She is living in a small apartment in the old district of Damascus. Her voice was garbled over the phone. It was the first time I could hardly understand her slurred words due to the dysarthric speech.

The tremble in her voice worried me, because her sister, Anisah, didn't survive last year. There was no access to a practitioner or hospital for her. My aunt had shared similar symptoms which -- combined with her heart disease and type 1 diabetes -- led to her fatal stroke.

I ached to reach through the phone and embrace my mother, to promise her that I would provide her the care that she had once provided for me.

Syria is facing a health crisis, but not the kind you might see on the front page.

While most media focus on the prevention of communicable diseases such as polio, very little attention is paid to the non-communicable diseases that are ravaging the health of internally displaced people. Many displaced Syrians are facing debilitating disease such as heart conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other chronic health conditions.

The hospital in my mother's neighborhood of Damascus has been shut down. Many doctors and practitioners have fled the country to escape from the perpetual violence. The remaining hospitals in other neighborhoods are either controlled by the rebel groups or ISIS.

Knowing that there is treatment for my mother not far away is even more painful. It may not be a great geographic distance for her to cross, but it is the largest risk that she could take. As for many Syrians, my mother's religious sect means she would be placing her life and freedom on the line if she were to enter rebel-controlled areas.

While so many suffer with untreated illnesses the mainstream media's main focus appears to be on communicable disease and the vaccination rate since the outbreak of the civil war.

The WHO estimates that of almost two million children born since the war there is only a 50% vaccination rate. Some previously eradicated contagious diseases have returned. While this may be valid information there are other statistics that are not being reported.

According to the International Diabetes Federation, in 2014 there were 875,700 adults with diabetes in Syria. It says there were also 8,013 deaths due to the condition.

In 2012, the WHO ranked heart disease and stroke Syria's second and third leading causes of death in Syria -- behind, inevitably, conflict.

These conditions are serious and can be fatal -- especially without treatment. However, with medication and regular medical attention many sufferers can recover or live many years.

But in Syria,accessing the necessary medication or treatment is nearly impossible. According to Physicians for Human Rights, by June 2014 Almost 500 doctors or medical staff had been jailed or killed and an estimated 15,000 doctors and medical professionals had fled for their own safety.

But many of Syria's unwell are not able to flee because of their health or other circumstances. Instead they are left without their medication and with very little opportunity for treatment.

With doctors afraid to treat, and patients unable to care for themselves or access medication, the mortality rate will inevitably increase, but the death toll will not reflect the declining quality of life endured by many suffering with untreated disease.

In addition, many of those injured during the ongoing civil war are unable to receive the proper care to rehabilitate. With the WHO estimating that at least half of the hospitals in Syria have been either damaged or destroyed the facilities are not available for surgeries or treatment.

What facilities do exist face the challenge of inadequate sterilization, supplies, and skilled technicians. Despite healthcare leaders pleading for mercy during the attacks, there have been allegations medical facilities and medical staff have been specific targets in the civil war.

What doctors remain are putting their own lives at risk. They are also working in damaged environments with limited resources.

Those that have loved ones who remain in Syria with these horrendous conditions are left to face an impossible scenario. While they know that there is treatment and medical care that could save the lives of their family members and friends, they also know that it is impossible to get that medical help to them.

Most consider it far too dangerous to attempt to leave Syria, or simply are not capable of leaving because of their health or other circumstances.

Those that have fled face their own set of challenges as they attempt to get treatment for their conditions in other countries.

No way to escape

An entire nation, with as many non-communicable diseases as any other, has been left with virtually no medical options and no way to escape the unpredictable war that has invaded their cities and neighborhoods.

I can hear the despair in my mother's voice when she speaks again. I feel the despair rush through me with every heartbeat. Once this woman held me in her arms and cared for me in the most vulnerable time of my life. Now I can only cradle the phone against my ear and wish that I could do the same for her.

Despite all that she needs, stability, healthcare, and hope, all I can offer her is an ear to listen, and a heart that breaks for her.

"I've lived my life, son. But do you think some institutions might bring the neighborhood some medicine one day?"-- a hint of hope lifts her voice. Her question, though posed by a woman who had only an elementary-school education, emphasizes a complex and finely nuanced dilemma.

How can a modern nation surrounded by other modern nations have an entire health care system ripped from the grasp of its ailing citizens?

In conflict-inflicted Syria my mother awaits my answer, her breath tattered by her untreated health issues. I hesitate to respond, knowing all that I do.

But I cannot resist offering her some small comfort, even if I don't know whether it will ever be the truth.

"Yes, Mother."

Majid Rafizadeh is a political scientist and scholar, focusing on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council and is on the boards of the Harvard International Review and Harvard International Relations Council. He is originally from Iran and Syria. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

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