Syria: WHO Regional Director calls for greater investment in health sector

Syria: WHO Regional Director calls for greater investment in health sector

Lives are at risk, and “the cost of inaction is simply too high”, Dr. Hanan Balkhy, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in a statement on Saturday after concluding a five-day visit to Syria.

She expressed grave concern over the complexities and challenges facing the population and humanitarian operations on the ground.

“The number of people in need is staggering, and pockets of critical vulnerabilities persist in many parts of the country,” she said.

“Compounding this already catastrophic situation, increasing political tensions in the region risk further escalation in Syria.”

Address multiple challenges

The health sector in Syria is affected by a lack of resources, but also a socioeconomic situation that is rapidly worsening due to ongoing insecurity, climate change, environmental risks, displacement, poverty, and sufficient access to food.

In her discussions with officials, Dr. Balkhy emphasized the importance of stepping up multi-sector coordination to address these challenges.

She said chronic diseases account for almost 75 per cent of all deaths across the country. Rising malnutrition rates among children under five and mothers, due to poverty, are also extremely alarming.

Child malnutrition tripled

Rates of global acute malnutrition in under-fives have tripled over the past four years, she said. At the same time, the number of stunted children in five out of 14 governorates has increased, with some areas experiencing catastrophic levels.

Syria also remains one of the biggest displacement crises in the world. More than 7.2 million people are internally displaced.

She pointed to the situation in Aleppo in the north, where life is extremely difficult due to the prolonged conflict and the deadly earthquake that struck the region and neighbouring Türkiye in February 2023.

“Lack of electricity has led to innovative yet unsafe approaches to heating and cooking, increasing the risk of fires and household burns, particularly for children,” she said.

A family found refuge at a school in Atarib, west of Aleppo, Syria, following the devastating earthquake that hit the region (file).

© UNICEF/Aaraf Watad

A family found refuge at a school in Atarib, west of Aleppo, Syria, following the devastating earthquake that hit the region (file).

Health system ‘extremely fragile’

She noted that across Syria, overcrowded living conditions and limited access to clean water and proper sanitation, outbreaks of cholera, severe acute respiratory infections, measles, lice, and scabies have been regularly reported over the past two years.

“Against this grim backdrop, Syria’s health system remains extremely fragile,” she said. Today, just over 60 per cent of both hospitals and primary healthcare centres are fully operational, and there are severe shortages of essential medicines and medical equipment.

“Most concerning is the fact that almost half of the health workforce, which forms the backbone of any health system, has left the country,” she added.

Access to Al-Hol camp

Furthermore, despite work done by WHO and partners to restore and rehabilitate health services, access to healthcare remains limited.

She was extremely concerned about the situation at the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp, located in the northwest, where families of former ISIL fighters have been detained for years.

WHO is one of the main health providers at Al-Hol, where both the needs and public health risks are immense. Since 9 May, the camp administration has revoked WHO’s access after funding shortfalls forced the UN agency to halt medical referrals.

“Our unrestricted access to the people in the camp must be restored in alignment with humanitarian principles to ensure we fulfill our public health mandate,” she said.

Funding shortfall, strengthened commitment

Dr. Balkhy reported that throughout her time in Syria, “the decline in humanitarian funding for Syria was a central and troubling concern.” Talks with donors in the capital, Damascus, revealed that although they are aware of the scale of gaps and needs, they are constrained by competing regional and global priorities.

She underlined WHO’s commitment to support the Syrian people, who remain resilient despite more than a decade of war and compounding crises.

She vowed to advocate for greater international support, and to strengthen WHO’s technical expertise to tackle these complex challenges, because “too many lives are at stake, and the cost of inaction is simply too high.”

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