Exclusive Report: Health Under Attack in Syria

Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based critical care physician who presides over the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), didn’t rely on words or statistics to convince a rapt audience at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that his homeland is in the grips of the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetime.

Sahloul presented harrowing and heart-wrenching personal photos—of a 3-year-old victim of a sniper attack who was brain dead by the time Sahloul examined him; of a 12-year-old victim of a barrel bomb who, Sahloul reported, was screaming because a chest tube (that would save his life) was being inserted without any anesthetic, because there was none.

He showed pictures he took of an Aleppo hospital in rubble—the result of a barrel bomb. The only sign of life: a surgeon-friend whose concern wasn’t for personal safety, but was salvaging the precious few remaining supplies like IV fluids. The attacks on health care infrastructure and health workers are increasing and will have long-lasting and far-reaching effects. 560 medical personnel have been killed in Syria, 90 percent of them by government forces, Sahloul said.

Sahloul has made numerous medical missions to Syria since the beginning of the crisis more than 3 years ago—perilous trips that require him to crawl through barbed-wire fences and trek across mountains. These are skills he didn't learn in medical school in Damascus, where he graduated first in his class, and where he was a classmate of Bashar Assad who worked as an ophthalmologist before he became the country’s president.

As the violence rages in Syria—it’s the worst of five Level-3 disasters in 2014—the sense of public outrage seems muted, perhaps signaling that the atrocities documented by Sahloul somehow represent a “new normal” warned a panel of human rights experts who, with Sahloul, convened Wednesday afternoon to confront the topic, “Health Under Attack in Syria and Beyond—What is Happening and What Can Be Done.”

—Maryalice Yakutchik

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