A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

Syria’s cholera outbreak has affected the country’s poorest people. (AFP)
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Updated 03 November 2022
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A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

  • WHO believes the current outbreak was caused by the public consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates
  • Syria’s health infrastructure has crumbled as a result of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage

DUBAI/QAMISHLI, Syria: After more than 11 years of war, destruction, displacement and hunger, Syrians now face a new horror: Cholera. The disease, caused by contaminated food and water, has spread across several parts of the country in recent months and has already claimed lives.

Cholera, which has been largely eliminated in the developed world, causes diarrhea and vomiting, leading to rapid dehydration, which can kill within hours without prompt treatment. The number of cases in Syria has been steadily on the rise since the summer.

The World Health Organization recorded 24,614 infections and 81 deaths between August to the end of October, with Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasakah witnessing the highest concentrations, while camps for the internally displaced have reported 65 cases.




A child suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

Parts of Syria, especially the far-flung governorates, have been facing a water crisis since most water and sewerage infrastructure was destroyed as a result of the civil war that erupted in 2011.

WHO believes the current outbreak was likely caused by the consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates River. Drought, the overpumping of groundwater, and new dams built upstream in Turkey have reduced the once mighty river to a trickle.

Falling water levels have created swamps and stagnant pools along the riverbanks, where raw sewage and other contaminants have collected and festered — the ideal conditions for water- and mosquito-borne diseases to develop.

Jwan Mustafa, co-chair of the Health Board of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), said the first case of cholera was recorded in the region in September, spreading from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa and later to Hasakah further to the north.

“Our recent statistics based on rapid testing confirm 15,000 cases and 30 deaths,” Mustafa told Arab News. “The pollution in the Euphrates River has been the main cause of plenty of prior viruses and diseases. And now cholera.

“People in the area rely on the river to drink, water their plants and for agriculture. The area by the river is considered the breadbasket of northeast Syria. When Hasakah faces a drought, it relies on the Euphrates’ water, which spells disaster for the governorate.

“We’ve started taking measures to attempt to contain the spread of the disease. Groups have been tasked with adding chlorine to water tanks in attempt to purify them.”




Syrians in Deir Ezzor are forced to use contaminated sections of the Euphrates River for drinking water and irrigation. (AFP)

Authorities are encouraging the public in cholera hotspots to first boil their water before drinking, cooking or watering their crops, to treat water tanks, pipes and other vessels with chlorine, and to regularly wash their hands and sanitize surfaces. 

However, given Syria’s crumbling infrastructure, the flight of skilled workers abroad and shortages of basic chemicals and equipment, even these simple preventative measures are difficult to implement. 

“The deterioration of the infrastructure has greatly impacted the health sector,” said Mustafa. “We struggle to contain diseases because we lack the resources and expertise. A simple virus can very easily become an epidemic in the region. We are short on laboratories and medications.”

Syria’s health infrastructure has suffered under a devastating mix of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage. Throughout the civil war, the regime of Bashar Assad has systematically destroyed hospitals in rebel-held areas in defiance of international humanitarian law.

FASTFACTS

• Some 29 countries have reported cholera outbreaks since January of this year.

• Afghanistan, Pakistan and Haiti are among those affected besides Syria and Lebanon.

• UNICEF urgently needs $40.5 million to expand its emergency cholera response in Syria and Lebanon alone.

• The money will support health, water, hygiene and sanitation, risk communication and community engagement.

Meanwhile, deliveries of foreign aid to areas beyond the regime’s control have been deliberately blocked or diverted.

Since June 2021, when regime ally Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution allowing eastern Syria to continue receiving cross-border support via Iraq, all UN aid to the region must first pass through Damascus.

This has resulted in severe shortages of medical supplies, poor coordination between health authorities, and limited testing capacity in eastern Syria.

For the people of Raqqa, the outbreak of cholera is only the latest in a litany of crises they are forced to face alone.




A woman suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

“The Syrian regime is not helping. People are already feeling haggard and depressed from the daily struggles brought on by the war,” Ahmad, a community activist in Raqqa who declined to give his full name, told Arab News.

“We know we are in trouble, but we also know help will not come from the Syrian regime. We know aid will not come locally or internationally. People do not care anymore. The cholera doesn’t faze us. We’ve been dying from war, chemical weapons and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We often muse how our lives have become Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book: ‘Love in the time of cholera,’” he added.




“Cholera doesn’t know borders and lines of control, and spreads along population movements,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)

In response to the cholera outbreak, Doctors Without Borders, in cooperation with local health officials in Raqqa, has established a local treatment center and two outpatient clinics in the AANES.

However, maintaining adequate food hygiene and access to clean drinking water has become increasingly difficult for most Syrians since the onset of the economic crisis and the currency collapse of 2019, which were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the spiraling price of food and fuel since the outbreak of war in Ukraine earlier this year.

According to the World Food Programme, the average price of food items in Syria has risen 532 percent since 2020. As a result, some 12 million people still living in Syria are now considered food insecure.

“Goods have become unattainable,” said Ahmad. “Talk on the street is that death is the best escape. And it will come, if not from cholera or COVID-19, then from hunger.”




A Syrian boy carries a bucket of water at the Sahlah Al-Banat camp for displaced people in the countryside of Raqa, in northern Syria. (AFP)

Conditions in neighboring Lebanon, where millions of Syrians have sought refuge in crowded camps since the outbreak of civil war, are not much better.

Already grappling with its own unprecedented economic crisis, which has thrown 80 percent of its citizens into poverty and left its infrastructure in tatters, Lebanon has also recorded cases of cholera.

Firass Abiad, Lebanon’s health minister, confirmed on Tuesday that the country had recorded 17 cholera deaths and 93 hospitalizations nationwide, including cases in the capital Beirut.

The government is trying to secure 600,000 vaccine doses for the most vulnerable, including prisoners, frontline workers and refugees residing in cramped and often squalid camps.

For most Syrians and Lebanese, who must foot their own medical bills amid rising prices and shattered health infrastructure, the omens are not good.

“I don’t even know where to start. If I get infected I don’t know if I can afford or even have a hospital bed ready for me,” Lina, a Lebanese citizen living in Akkar, a poverty-stricken area of northern Lebanon, told Arab News.

“Life has become unbearably difficult. But, at the end of the day, it’s just another way to die.”


Israeli strikes target Lebanon’s Baalbek for first time since Gaza war

Updated 26 February 2024
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Israeli strikes target Lebanon’s Baalbek for first time since Gaza war

  • The strikes are among the deepest into Lebanon since the Israel-Hamas war began more than four months ago
  • Israel’s air force carried out three airstrikes on the outskirts of the village of Buday, near Baalbek, targeting a convoy of trucks

BEIRUT: The Israeli military said Monday its air force was striking targets of the militant Hebollah group “deep inside Lebanon,” where residents reported explosions near the northeastern city of Baalbek.
The strikes are among the deepest into Lebanon since the Israel-Hamas war began more than four months ago. They come a day after Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed to step up attacks on Lebanon’s Hezbollah even if a cease-fire is reached with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Lebanese security officials said Israel’s air force carried out three airstrikes on the outskirts of the village of Buday, near Baalbek, targeting a convoy of trucks. Buday is a Hezbollah stronghold. There was no immediate word on casualties.
A Hezbollah official confirmed that three strikes hit near Baalbek. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
The Israeli army said further details will follow.
The airstrikes near Baalbek came hours after Hezbollah said its fighters on Monday shot down an Israeli drone over its stronghold in a province in southern Lebanon. Anotehr missile fired by Hezbollah toward the drone was intercepted by Israel, and landed near a synagogue in a town close to Nazareth in northern Israel. There were no injuries or damage.
Hezbollah has been exchanging fire with Israeli troops along the border since the Israel-Hamas broke on Oct. 7.
The strike on Baalbek, because of its location deep inside Lebanon, is the most significant one since the early January airstrike on Beirut that killed top Hamas official Saleh Arouri.
Hezbollah, which has been exchanging fire with Israel throughout the war in Gaza, has said it will halt its nearly daily attacks on Israel if a cease-fire is reached in Gaza.


Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

Updated 26 February 2024
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Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

  • Move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up Palestinian Authority
  • Shtayyeh says he is resigning to allow broader consensus among Palestinians following Israel’s war on Gaza

RAMALLAH: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday he was resigning to allow for the formation of a broad consensus among Palestinians about political arrangements following Israel’s war against the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
The move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Palestinian Authority as international efforts have intensified to stop the fighting in Gaza and begin work on a political structure to govern the enclave after the war.
His resignation must still be accepted by Abbas, who may ask him to stay on as caretaker until a permanent replacement is appointed.
In a statement to cabinet, Shtayyeh, an academic economist who took office in 2019, said the next stage would need to take account of the emerging reality in Gaza, which has been laid waste by nearly five months of heavy fighting.
He said the next stage would “require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus.”
In addition, it would require “the extension of the Authority’s authority over the entire land, Palestine.”
The Palestinian Authority, formed 30 years ago under the interim Oslo peace accords, exercises limited governance over parts of the occupied West Bank but lost power in Gaza following a struggle with Hamas in 2007.
Fatah, the faction that controls the PA, and Hamas have made efforts to reach an agreement over a unity government and are due to meet in Moscow on Wednesday. A senior Hamas official said the move had to be followed by a broader agreement on governance for the Palestinians.
“The resignation of Shtayyeh’s government only makes sense if it comes within the context of national consensus on arrangements for the next phase,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.


UAE floating hospital begins operations at Al-Arish to treat Palestinian patients

Updated 26 February 2024
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UAE floating hospital begins operations at Al-Arish to treat Palestinian patients

AL-ARISH: A floating hospital provided by the UAE, anchored in Egypt’s Port city of Al-Arish, commenced operations on Sunday to provide treatment for injured Palestinians.

The initiative is a part of the UAE’s “Gallant Knight 3” humanitarian operation.

The 100-bed hospital has operating rooms, an intensive care unit, radiology section, laboratory and pharmacy, state news agency WAM reported.

A 20-year-old Palestinian man was the first to undergo surgery at the hospital. He was treated for a gunshot wound to the shoulder and injuries caused by shrapnel.

Doctors repositioned his shoulder, and he will require a follow-up operation to repair nerve damage.

The floating hospital was established in cooperation with the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi and AD Ports Group. It is being staffed by 100 medical workers who are skilled in anesthesia, general surgery, orthopedics, and emergency medicine.

Dr. Falah Al-Mahmoud, director of the hospital, said the facility would help alleviate the suffering of Palestinians.

Dr. Falah Al-Mahmoud, director of the hospital, said the facility would help alleviate the suffering of Palestinians. (WAM)

 


Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

Updated 26 February 2024
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Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh resigns

  • Palestinian PM says ‘new political measures’ needed amid Gaza war
  • The move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Palestinian Authority

RAMALLAH: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday he was resigning to allow for the formation of a broad consensus among Palestinians about political arrangements following Israel’s war against the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.
The move comes amid growing US pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to shake up the Palestinian Authority as international efforts have intensified to stop the fighting in Gaza and begin work on a political structure to govern the enclave after the war.
His resignation must still be accepted by Abbas, who may ask him to stay on as caretaker until a permanent replacement is appointed.
In a statement to cabinet, Shtayyeh, an academic economist who took office in 2019, said the next stage would need to take account of the emerging reality in Gaza, which has been laid waste by nearly five months of heavy fighting.
He said the next stage would “require new governmental and political arrangements that take into account the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus.”
In addition, it would require “the extension of the Authority’s authority over the entire land, Palestine.”
The Palestinian Authority, formed 30 years ago under the interim Oslo peace accords, exercises limited governance over parts of the occupied West Bank but lost power in Gaza following a struggle with Hamas in 2007.
Fatah, the faction that controls the PA, and Hamas have made efforts to reach an agreement over a unity government and are due to meet in Moscow on Wednesday. A senior Hamas official said the move had to be followed by a broader agreement on governance for the Palestinians.
“The resignation of Shtayyeh’s government only makes sense if it comes within the context of national consensus on arrangements for the next phase,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.


Yemen’s Houthis announce first civilian death in US-UK strikes

Updated 26 February 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis announce first civilian death in US-UK strikes

  • One person was killed and eight wounded a day after US and British forces said they fired on 18 targets
SANAA: Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia have reported the first civilian death in US and British air strikes after the latest round of joint raids over the weekend.
One person was killed and eight wounded, the Houthis’ official news agency said late on Sunday, a day after US and British forces said they fired on 18 targets across the country.
The US-British strikes were in response to dozens of Houthi drone and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping since November, which the rebels say are in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza war.
“The American-British aggression on the district of Maqbana in the governorate of Taiz has left one civilian dead and eight wounded,” the Houthis’ Saba agency said, citing a statement from the rebel-run health ministry.
The Houthis, who control war-torn Yemen’s most populated areas, have previously reported the death of 17 of their fighters in the Western strikes targeting military facilities.
The Houthi attacks have had a significant effect on traffic through the busy Red Sea route, forcing some companies into a two-week detour around southern Africa. Last week, Egypt said Suez Canal revenues were down by up to 50 percent this year.
Washington, Israel’s vital ally, gathered an international coalition in December to protect Red Sea traffic. It has launched several rounds of strikes as well as four joint raids with Britain, which began last month.
The Houthis initially said they were targeting Israel-linked shipping in the Red Sea and adjoining Gulf of Aden, but then declared that US and British interests were also “legitimate” targets.