CGH faculty, Dr. Sasha Fahme, on the ground in Lebanon after devasting Turkey and Syria earthquake

On February 6th, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Southeast Turkey and Northwest Syria. The estimated death toll has surpassed 44,000, however, the number of causalities is thought to be significantly underestimated. Tens of thousands of people remain injured, and hundreds of thousands are displaced.

Dr. Sasha Fahme, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Center for Global Health based in Beirut, Lebanon, has worked with Syrian refugees for the past six years on the Lebanon-Syrian border and studies the interactions between conflict, displaced populations, and health. The border to Syria is currently closed, and despite being so close to Aleppo, one of the worst hit cities in the country, Dr. Fahme is not able to enter the country and support NGOs and healthcare facilities that are desperately in need.

Dr. Fahme reports that the recent earthquake is a massive humanitarian crisis, which has left hundreds of thousands internally displaced amid freezing temperatures, an ongoing cholera outbreak, no access to food, and limited medical care.  We asked her specifically about the impact of the earthquake on Syrian refugees in Turkey and displaced persons in Northwestern Syria.

The devastation is particularly catastrophic in Northwest Syria, which is set against the backdrop of a protracted conflict and refugee crisis that has hindered relief efforts and access to medical care. The earthquake further exacerbated the already fragmented health system and poor water infrastructure.

The ongoing cholera outbreak has added an additional layer of suffering for people in these areas as well. Many health care facilities have been structurally damaged and are currently stretched to capacity, dealing with the severity of injuries from the earthquake, and are now unable to respond to other medical conditions or provide preventative care. Therefore, risk factors that lead to respiratory illnesses, waterborne and infectious diseases will continue to intensify and affect an already vulnerable population.

Not only do these conditions exacerbate the spread of infectious diseases, but they also disrupt management and care of other chronic diseases. Apart from the overburdened healthcare system and lack of medical supplies, there is no fuel, running water, or electricity. These complex infrastructure issues compound the vulnerability of people who have already been displaced multiple times due to the armed conflict in Syria.

Many Syrian refugees now reside in Turkey in the area that was most severely affected by the earthquake, many of whom have been displaced up to twenty times in the last decade. Relief efforts in these areas have been more robust than those in Northwest Syria, but these groups are often still subject to discrimination and lack of access to government-sponsored social services.

It is imperative that we change how we respond in times of catastrophic crises, and Dr. Fahme explained that one of the best solutions is most often through partnerships with local organizations. She is working closely with The Syrian-American Medical Society, a non-profit global medical relief organization, supporting Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons, and encourages this kind of community partnership approach to reach those most affected by conflict and natural disasters.

Article by Alexandra Cordeiro

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