The Hippocratic Death Warrant

Physicians For Human Rights says vast majority of doctors have fled the conflict in Syria. ILLUSTRATION: MAELLE DOLIVEAU

Syrian government forces are targeting doctors as a weapon of war

BY Lucy Westcott

The number of doctors in Syria’s rebel-held eastern Aleppo has been reduced to no more than 80, as the vast majority have been killed or fled, according to nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights.

The city is divided into two sections, with rebels of various factions controlling the east and government forces holding the west. Physicians for Human Rights produced a report on the eastern part of the city, where it said the population has fallen from around 1.2 million in 2010 to around 300,000 since the war broke out in 2011. (The total prewar population of Aleppo was more than 2 million, making it Syria’s largest city.) In 2010, 1,500 doctors were working in eastern Aleppo. Now 80 doctors, at most, are still working, but the actual number at any given moment is between 37 and 50, as these doctors regularly take time off to rest in Turkey and elsewhere after working for days on end in crisis conditions.

The report said around 95 percent of Aleppo’s doctors have been killed, detained or have fled. That means there’s now roughly one doctor for every 7,000 people in eastern Aleppo, compared with one doctor for every 800 people in 2010. The number of specialists has dwindled, leaving just one cardiologist, one neurologist, one female gynecologist and one or two urologists.

Doctors who remain are mostly treating acute injuries, and many are learning on the job, having had little experience before the war in performing amputations or surgeries. Doctors interviewed by Physicians for Human Rights said they live in constant fear of aerial bombardment. Around 200 nurses are thought to be still working with the remaining doctors.

Government forces have attacked 45 hospitals in the past four years, according to Physicians for Human Rights. Since March 2011, 687 health care workers have been killed in Syria, and nearly 300 medical facilities have been destroyed. “We see this as a terrifying precedent for what could indeed be a very effective weapon of war,” said Michele Heisler, co-author of the report.

“Once you start targeting hospitals so people can’t give or receive medical care, it is an insidiously effective way of sowing terror.”

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