Like Counting Sand in the Desert: Attacks on healthcare in Syria likely undercounted

Like Counting Sand in the Desert: Attacks on healthcare in Syria likely undercounted

As Syria’s devastating civil war enters its seventh year, the decimation of the country’s healthcare system continues. Violent attacks on hospitals, ambulances, health workers, and patients occur frequently in warzones, and no consistent system of counting these attacks is yet in place. According to a new study by Rohini J. Haar and colleagues with the Syrian American Medical Society published in PLOS Medicine this week, attacks on healthcare in Syria are likely even more common than previously reported.

The researchers developed a standardized questionnaire usable on mobile phones to verify field reports and quantify attacks on healthcare. Local data collectors used the tool to gather basic information about the attacks, which was sent to data managers through a secure messaging system. They recorded at least 200 attacks on healthcare in 2016 alone – 112 health care workers and 185 patients were killed. Up to 176 of the attacks were on hospitals. When cross-referenced with another database of attacks based on media reports, developed by Physicians for Human Rights, 60 of those attacks could be verified by both sources, indicating that neither reporting method was able to capture the true extent of the attacks.

Though the chaotic nature of warzone reporting limits the accuracy and consistency of the results, the researchers note, the new study reveals that the state of healthcare in Syria is dire. Recent reports suggest the number of deliberate attacks on healthcare continues to climb. As refugees pour out of the region and bombs continue to fall on civilian areas, documenting these attacks could help identify new strategies to keep patients and healthcare workers safe, influence policy, and promote justice for the victims, the study authors say.



Research Article: Haar RJ, Risko CB, Singh S, Rayes D, Albaik A, Alnajar M, et al. (2018) Determining the scope of attacks on health in four governorates of Syria in 2016: Results of a field surveillance program. PLoS Med 15(4): e1002559.


Image Credit: Freedom House, Flickr


Erin is a Publications Assistant and the press representative for PLOS Medicine. Since joining PLOS in 2017, she has been fortunate to read and report on the new and important studies published by PLOS Medicine each week.

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