Sunday, August 25, 2013

Syria: Mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent says MSF

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All eyes are on the international community, mainly the United States, to see whether a chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad regime forces in the Damascus region on August 21 will go unpunished.

Rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar at dawn last Wednesday as residents were still sleeping. Some 1,300 were killed in the rocket strike, most of them women and children.

With unforgettable horror images still emerging, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported Saturday (August 24) that three hospitals in Syria's Damascus governorate that are supported MSF have reported to MSF they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron are "gravely concerned" by "increasing signs this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime."

A Downing Street spokesperson said Cameron and Obama discussed the situation in Syria by telephone Saturday afternoon:

“They are both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people. The UN Security Council has called for immediate access for UN investigators on the ground in Damascus. The fact that President Assad has failed to cooperate with the UN suggests that the regime has something to hide.

“They reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community and both have tasked officials to examine all the options. They agreed that it is vital that the world upholds the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and deters further outrages. They agreed to keep in close contact on the issue.”

Médecins Sans Frontières

In a statement released in Brussels and New York on Saturday, MSF, the Nobel Peace Prize winner (1999), says that since 2012 it has built a strong and reliable collaboration with medical networks, hospitals and medical points in the Damascus governorate, and has been providing them with drugs, medical equipment and technical support. Due to significant security risks, MSF staff members have not been able to access the facilities.

“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations.

Patients were treated using MSF-supplied atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. MSF is now trying to replenish the facilities’ empty stocks and provide additional medical supplies and guidance.

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr. Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events -- characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients and the contamination of medical and first aid workers -- strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

In addition to 1,600 vials of atropine supplied over recent months, MSF has now dispatched 7,000 additional vials to facilities in the area. Treatment of neurotoxic patients is now being fully integrated into MSF’s medical strategies in all its programs in Syria, the statement added.

“MSF hopes that independent investigators will be given immediate access to shed light on what happened,” said Christopher Stokes, MSF general director. “This latest attack and subsequent massive medical need come on top of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation, characterized by extreme violence, displacement, and deliberate destruction of medical facilities. In the case of such extreme violations of humanitarian law, humanitarian assistance cannot respond effectively and becomes meaningless itself.”

MSF, created in France in 1971, says it provides medical assistance in Syria through two different approaches. MSF international and national staff operate six hospitals and four health centers in structures fully under the organization’s direct control in the north of Syria. In areas where MSF cannot send its own teams because of insecurity or lack of access, the organization has expanded a program begun two years ago of supporting Syrian medical networks, hospitals and medical posts, by providing drugs, medical equipment, and technical advice and support. Through the latter program, MSF has been supporting 27 hospitals and 56 medical posts throughout Syria.