The victims of war

Members of a Palestinian family flee their houses in Gaza City on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. This is not good for their health. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

While havoc spreads across the Middle East—in Iraq, Syria, Israel, and Gaza—it is civilians who are bearing the brunt of newly surfaced and long-standing disputes. This week in the news—the escalating war between Israel and Hamas. Last week—the crumbling of Iraq as ISIS fighters struck near Baghdad and threaten stability in the region. All the while, the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis in its wake have fallen off the front pages. But the disaster and suffering in and around Syria is no less acute.

A study published this week in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report calls attention to one aspect of the crisis that is quietly harming many among the estimated 2.8 million refugees who have fled Syria.  Led by scientists from the CDC, the study identifies chronic malnutrition in children in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. There, nearly 20% of kids were chronically malnourished, while almost 50% were suffering from anemia, a marker of malnutrition indicating a lack of iron in the diet.

For those still in Syria, the situation only worsens, particularly among women and children. A June report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) paints a grim picture of the situation inside Syria as attacks on civilians worsen. A crumbled public health infrastructure barely functions, and violence against women is a significant concern. The UN report also expresses concern for the women inside Syria who are unable to receive treatment for emergency obstetric care. And a May report from Amnesty International says that a “severe shortfall in international support has left many Syrian refugees in Lebanon unable to access crucial medical care.” The situation is so grim that in some cases refugees have, at great risk, gone back to Syria to seek care.

Finally, it is no surprise that without a functioning public health system vaccination rates in Syria have plummeted. Coverage for polio vaccine has declined from 99 percent before the war to 52 percent today. In the wake of this public health disaster, 36 Syrian children have been paralyzed by polio and many more adults and children are silent carriers. The World Health Organization and UNICEF have just completed the first phase of a regional polio vaccination campaign, seeking to vaccinate 22 million kids under the age of 5 throughout the Middle East.

There are lessons here, of course. War inevitably has an awful public health impact—on the delivery of essential public health services; on the mental and physical health of its victims; and on the political, economic, cultural, and familial institutions that glue society together. We can be a brutal species. And even as we know our awful potential, we continue to do harm to each other. But don’t close your eyes. Don’t look away from the suffering in Syria, in Iraq, in Israel, and in Gaza. Let it burn into you. To what end, I do not know. But I do know that we shouldn’t look away—that we should do all that we can to call attention to the suffering and do what we can to alleviate it.

One thing you can do, if you are able, is to donate to organizations on the ground helping Syrian refugees. Here are just a few:


The United Nations Refugee Agency

Save the Children

International Rescue Committee

Catholic Relief Services



On a happier note: If you are looking for some a/c and some laughs this weekend, our monthly improv show is back this Saturday night, July 26, at the Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom St., where I'll be joined by special guest David Barnes from Penn. Shows sell out, so buy your tickets in advance.

Hope to see you there (or at least on Facebook)!

— Michael

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