Translating Humanitarian Emergency into Medical Aid in Syria

Claire Glasscoe


Damaged Eyesight

Surgeons working in field hospitals inside Syria estimate that 25% of head injuries they see involve trauma to the eyes. This delicate sensory organ is both important for negotiating a hazardous environment and vulnerable to damage from explosive blasts; debris in the cloud of dust, flying glass, shrapnel, corrosive toxins and burns all threaten the ability to see clearly. These may not be life-threatening injuries, but the possibility of blindness would severely disable a person's autonomy if not addressed.

Corrective surgery and advances in ophthalmology can in some cases repair the damage and dramatically restore vision. These are specialist skills though; the procedure generally needs to be done quickly to be of any use and involves sophisticated equipment; so often there is a delay involved until such dedicated services can be accessed. The Syrian British Medical Society anticipated this need and set up an ophthalmology clinic on the border zone with Turkey.

Psychological Trauma

Syrian doctors who are working with casualties from the conflict on the border-zone with Syria readily admit that they are all in need of psychiatric help because of the unrelenting death, destruction and carnage they have experienced. Psychological first aid is barely practiced inside Syria and specialist psychology services are non-existent due to lack of qualified staff. The drawing right (tweeted by Dr Annie Sparrow 03/05/14) was by a primary schoolgirl, Noran and hanging in an exhibition at her school in Aleppo when it was bombed.

She was killed in the blast but has left us with a lasting impression of the inner world of a young girl in this conflict. The Syrian American Medical Society doctors working inside Syria estimate that most of the population is suffering from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or shock. They provided psychosocial support for 3,145 children and teenagers in besieged Eastern Gouta in 2014. There they saw traumatized children presenting with anxiety disorders such as selective mutism, stuttering and poor bladder control - a classic withdrawal response. Omer Karasapan summarises concerns about Syria's mental health crisis for The Brookings Institution, with links to significant clinical research. Although not lifesaving psychosocial support is considered by aid agencies to be more feasible than specialist psychology services in promoting a sense of well-being and essential for averting more entrenched emotional problems ultimately disabling families over time.

Lost Limbs

Anne Garella, regional representative for Handicap International's emergency response mission in the Middle East explains that their research, which used quantitative and qualitative methodology extrapolates from a comprehensive sample and comes up with an alarming result. The research was conducted in 2012 and 2013 on a sample of 913 interviewees displaying only crisis related injuries out of the total 1,847 interviewed.