December 26, 2017: Washington, D.C. – Today in besieged East Ghouta, medical evacuations began for a group of 29 critical cases, which have been approved for medical evacuation to Damascus. Four patients were evacuated today, with the remainder being evacuated over the coming days. The evacuation process started at 9:00 pm local time, and concluded at approximately 12:30 am local time.
In late October 2017, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) consulted with local doctors, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) to submit the list of 29 critical cases in East Ghouta in need of urgent medical evacuation. The list includes 18 children and 4 women suffering from heart disease, cancer, kidney failure, and blood diseases, in addition to cases requiring advanced surgery that are not available in the besieged area. However, this list represents just a small fraction of the current number of 641 critical cases in need of urgent medical evacuation.
The medical situation in East Ghouta has reached a breaking point. Because of the ongoing siege and the shortage of medical supplies, 17 patients at least have died over the past few months because they were not able to access medical care. Earlier this month, nine-year-old Batoul passed away after battling tuberculosis. In September 2017, five-year-old Osama lost his life due to acute herpetic encephalitis. Acyclovir, the antiviral medication needed to save his life, was available just 10 kilometers away in Damascus.
In August 2017, nine-year-old Sara passed away while negotiations for her evacuation were underway. She suffered from bilateral retinoblastoma, and she needed urgent chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery and now her sister Nour a 3 months old baby has the same disease and need to reach Damascus for treatment. In the same month, six-month-old Kenan passed away from leukemia while awaiting medical evacuation.
The medical infrastructure of East Ghouta has been decimated by the stifling siege coupled with ongoing bombardment, even though East Ghouta has been listed as one of the de-escalation zones. “Only 107 doctors remain in the area to provide care to a population of 400,000, including 130,000 children, while facing a severe shortage of medical supplies,” said SAMS President, Dr. Ahmad Tarakji. Recently, UNICEF has reported that the rate of malnutrition in children under 5 has increased to 11.9%, the highest seen anywhere in the country since the beginning of the conflict.
Medical workers in the area have constantly shared their vast and urgent medical needs, including serums, anesthesia, surgical items, dialysis supplies, antibiotics, vaccines, and baby formula, tuberculosis medicine, equipment and supplies for lab tests, cesarean section kits, chronic diseases medicines and many others. Unfortunately, their requests have been repeatedly ignored, or needed medical supplies have been removed from convoys.
Although the humanitarian crisis in East Ghouta is entering its fifth year, the evacuation of these 29 patients marks the first time that a systematic approach has been implemented in the area’s medical evacuations.
Since March 2017, the need for medical evacuations has been raised by many parties, including SAMS, senior UN officials, and member states of the Security Council, all in an effort to secure lifesaving care for critically ill patients in East Ghouta.
Although this represents a crucial first step, the humanitarian needs in the area are extremely critical, and many patients are still in urgent need of medical evacuation, including nine-year-old Moayad Hamed, who lives with brain cancer in besieged East Ghouta. Because he can no longer access treatment, his malignant brain tumor has grown. Without medical care, his condition will continue to deteriorate. He, and hundreds of other patients, still need medical evacuation to save their lives.
“SAMS calls on the involved parties to guarantee medical evacuation to all patients in East Ghouta, in addition to the remaining 610 medical cases on the list, while guaranteeing safety, the right of return, and the choice of evacuation destination. SAMS also calls for the immediate entry of needed humanitarian and medical aid, sufficient for the entire population, and evenly distributed amongst them,” said Dr. Tarakji.
Photos: Abdulmonam Eassa/Syrian American Medical Society