Syria’s cholera outbreak is spreading across the country and hitting neighboring Lebanon


BEIRUT – A recent cholera outbreak in Syria has affected almost all of its provinces and spread to neighboring Lebanon, setting off alarms in both countries, where economic crises have exacerbated deteriorating health conditions.

Syria’s cholera outbreak was declared on September 10, and by the end of the month surveillance data showed more than 10,000 suspected cases across the country, UNICEF said this week.

On Friday, Lebanon had recorded two cases of cholera in Akkar province, the northernmost part of the country bordering Syria, according to Health Minister Firass Abiad. No cholera vaccine is available in the country at this time, Abiad told The Washington Post.

Syria and Lebanon are mired in economic crises that have taken their toll on all aspects of life, including health conditions and water sanitation.

UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, said cholera cases in Syria have been concentrated in the north, but the waterborne disease is “spreading rapidly” in other governorates.

Syria, especially its northern regions, is experiencing a severe and growing water crisis due to large-scale damage to its water and sanitation infrastructure during an 11-year war that has ravaged a large part of the country. The economic crisis, persistent fighting, population displacements and prolonged drought have left 47% of the population dependent on “alternative and often unsanitary water sources”, UNICEF said.

“At least 70% of wastewater discharged is not treated, posing major risks of epidemics, including cholera,” the agency reported, estimating that the conflict had damaged two-thirds of the wastewater treatment plants. country’s water supply, half of its pumping stations and a third of its water towers.

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The Syrian Health Ministry said on Tuesday it had confirmed 594 cases via rapid tests, mostly in Aleppo province, and recorded 39 deaths from the disease.

The number of reported deaths, relayed by state media, is significant. By contrast, Syria was slow to acknowledge the spread of covid-19 after the pandemic hit, causing a rare outcry in 2020 in government-controlled parts of the country, where doctors publicly challenged official figures putting their own lives in danger.

In light of the recent cholera outbreak, the Ministry of Health launched awareness campaigns in schools and called on residents to wash their hands, drink water from “safe sources” when they are available and boil water before use, wash fruits and vegetables well and consult physicians. early on any suspicious case.

But in much of Syria, these preventive measures are difficult to adopt. Accessibility to water has become a significant issue this summer across the country, meaning residents have no guarantee of safe water sources. The health system has been decimated by the war and the lack of funds and medicines. Western sanctions have made the situation worse.

UNICEF has also drawn attention to the spread of cholera in camps hosting internally displaced people, or IDPs, saying the situation there is “particularly critical”. There are more than 6 million displaced people in Syria, according to United Nations estimates.

Beyond finding palliative measures to stop the spread of this disease, the agency said, restoration of water and sanitation systems is needed to prevent future outbreaks.

But the prospects for such infrastructure reconstruction are bleak: the government has been unable or unwilling to carry out such projects. International donors are suffering from “a certain fatigue” when it comes to Syria, said European Union foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell. He reminded international donors at a conference in May: “Now Ukraine is in the headlines, but don’t give up on Syria.”

The fate of Lebanon is in many ways linked to Syria. Their economies are intertwined, and shortages of goods in Lebanon reverberate throughout Syria, and vice versa. Wheat, oil, medicine and foodstuffs are frequently smuggled across the border in both directions, most commonly from Lebanon to Syria.

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The World Health Organization is working with the Lebanese government to provide vaccines, said Abiad, the health minister. Alissar Rady, WHO team leader in Lebanon, said the agency is working with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF and other partners to put in place a plan focused on surveillance and early detection. , and to prepare hospitals to receive cases requiring advanced care. Community engagement is also essential, she added. “And there is a lot of work with national authorities to see how we can improve water quality monitoring and periodic water testing.”

Lebanon has a long history of water sanitation issues. Piped water – now a pipe dream in the most economically affected parts of the country – has not been drinkable for decades. The coastline, especially along the capital, Beirut, contains high levels of contamination and feces.

And the healthcare system is struggling to stay afloat as the economy slumps and hordes of medical professionals leave the country. The WHO estimated last year that nearly 40% of Lebanon’s doctors and 30% of its nurses had left since 2019.

The lack of electricity has also worsened sanitary conditions in the country. Last year, an outbreak of E. coli has added to the woes of overcrowded hospitals. Food poisoning has increased over the past two summers, in part due to the lack of stable power and food refrigeration.

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