Conflict & Justice

Syria disease outbreak: Typhoid, hepatitis A infections on the rise, warns WHO


"We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes," UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos warned this week.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Contagious diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis A are spreading across war-torn Syria due to people drinking contaminated water from rivers and wells, the World Health Organization has warned.

It's the latest fallout from the country's nearly two-year civil war that's killed as many as 90,000 people by some estimates.

The rising number of infections has coincided with the collapse of the country’s health system, with more than half of the hospitals in Syria damaged and more than one-third out of service, while many doctors have left hot-spot zones, UN humanitarian news service IRIN reported.

“This is certainly a crisis with a very grave outlook,” Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Syria, told IRIN.

The United Nations agency has registered 800 cases of hepatitis across Syria, while 2,500 cases of typhoid have been recorded in the opposition-held Deir-er-Zor Governorate in the country’s northeast.

"There is not enough fuel or electricity to run the pumps so people drink water from the Euphrates which is contaminated, probably with sewage," Hoff told Reuters this week.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos was quoted by Catholic Online as saying aid was not reaching rebel-held northern Syria.

On the Turkish border, conditions are not much better, says GlobalPost Senior Correspondent Tracey Shelton.

About 12,000 refugees are taking shelter in tents around the Syrian town of Atmeh. The rain causes unsanitary stagnant pools to form amid the muddy trails that lead between the tents.

On Shelton's recent visit, children played in the mud barefoot while garbage littered the area.

"The toilet is so smelly, it’s not acceptable to enter this place," Sowsan, a 45-year-old mother of six who has lived in the camp for more than a year, told GlobalPost. "There is no place to shower. There is never any water. Not everyone gets food."

Mothers complained that the bitter cold, unsanitary conditions and lack of washing water meant their children were constantly sick.

"When we go to the medical tent, the doctor is not always there. He comes only at 5 p.m. If anything happens before then you have to wait," Sowsan said.

She went on to relate how her severely ill mother had been turned away from the Atmeh hospital as "they only accept injured people."

"Where are we going to go? We brought her back and gave her some random injection."

The United Nations has estimated the war has forced some 850,000 refugees to flee Syria to neighboring countries. Inside Syria, almost 4 million more have been displaced and are in need of aid.

Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the WHO, told Agence France-Presse there had been no reported deaths from typhoid so far. 

"But the mortality rate from typhoid can be extremely high if it is not dealt with," he warned.

More from GlobalPost: Full coverage of the Syrian conflict

Tracey Shelton contributed writing from Antakya, Turkey. Follow her on Twitter @tracey_shelton.

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