Doctor: 'We Truly Are Failing The Syrian People'

Stephen Cornish of Doctors Without Borders was recently in Syria. He talks to Audie Cornish about how medical personnel are managing to reach patients in the war-torn nation where he says there is a lack of respect for doctors on both sides of the conflict.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to the medical crisis in Syria. Stephen Cornish of Doctors Without Borders Canada recently returned from Syria, and he says he cannot overstate the scale and severity of a humanitarian emergency he witnessed there. Stephen Cornish joins us now. Welcome to the program.

STEPHEN CORNISH: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And you were in rebel-controlled areas in the northern part of Syria. Why don't you describe the conditions you saw there and the medical needs of the people you met?

CORNISH: Well, what I can tell you is that we truly are failing the Syrian people. We saw whole neighborhoods that have been destroyed in the fighting, tens of thousands of people that have fled to makeshift camps inside the Syrian territory where there aren't enough aid agencies or enough relief supplies to meet all of their needs. There are open sewers. Shelter and food are being stretched to cover new arrivals. There's water that's not being chlorinated, so real risks of summertime epidemics.

As far as the civilian population is concerned, their access to health has all but collapsed. A third of the health care structures have been destroyed in the fighting, and vaccinations have been interrupted also. So children under 2 have had no vaccinations and are at a very grave risk of epidemic as well. We've already seen outbreaks of measles, which we've started vaccinating against.

BLOCK: Now, you're describing the dire conditions in areas controlled by the rebels. Have you been able to get permission from the Syrian government to work in areas under government control?

CORNISH: Unfortunately, we haven't been able to arrange that as of yet. And so what we're doing on the government side is we're sending relief convoys with trusted networks of doctors. We're also training medical students and others in order to increase the overall level of care.

BLOCK: Can you describe some of the conditions that your doctors are working under in Syria and where they've been able to set up these medical outposts?

CORNISH: Indeed. They've had to be quite inventive in some cases. Over the past months, we've had a surgery that was opened inside a cave. We've had another that was opened in a chicken farm, a third one in a house. And these structures, we've tried to outfit them as best as we can with enough modern technology and with full medical teams.

They originally were dealing mainly with combatant injuries and people who were - civilians who were directly affected by the conflict. But as the health care system has collapsed, we find more and more civilian needs and other types of needs that need responding. So two of our facilities now have full maternity wards.

Women who have a need for a C-section or a complicated pregnancy often can't find any other area for care. And in one of our hospitals, we had a woman who was expecting twins, who searched for four days to be able to find a structure that would be able to take care of her. And thankfully, her two babies were born healthy, and the mother had a good outcome.

BLOCK: You know, how are people finding out where they can go to get medical attention and the places where it is available?

CORNISH: Well, with some of our more established clinics and surgeries, I think word of mouth is now spreading. But it is a very grave difficulty, especially for the civilian populations. While I was there, we received at one of our centers a number of wounded from a rather large battle. And one of the women, she had a mortar explode in her living room and took off part of her skull.

She ended up in a taxi, circuitous route for over four hours before she came to our rear base surgery, and unfortunately she died along the way. But what makes this story so tragic is that there is a center only several kilometers from our house that we supply. People are either too scared to go to these centers because they fear the regime might arrest them, or they're unable to cross the front lines.

She also went right by another surgery, an underground surgery, but was told that that particular structure was either closed or not working that day. So it is very difficult for civilians to find care. And one of the difficulties also is that a number of smaller surgeries that have been set up are either overwhelmed with combatants or primarily taking care of combatants. And what we would certainly urge is that all surgeries and all health posts also are accommodating the civilian population.

BLOCK: You mean, in other words, that the fighters are getting priority for medical care and the civilians are suffering for that.

CORNISH: Unfortunately, that is sometimes the reality on the ground. Some of the surgeries we visited, you could tell that because not only there were no civilians on the wards, but there were also no beds or toilet facilities for women. So it's kind of a dead giveaway.

BLOCK: Well, Stephen Cornish, thanks for talking with us today.

CORNISH: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's Stephen Cornish. He's executive director of Doctors Without Borders Canada. We were talking about his recent visit to Syria.

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