This week Syrian-born Dateline presenter Sarah Abo joins Australian paediatrician, Annie Sparrow as she visits Lebanon’s vast Bekaa Valley to offer help to the 1 million plus Syrian refugees that no longer have access to basic health services.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon may have survived bombs and bullets but now young and old are dying from treatable diseases like diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and cancer.
Sarah meets a group of Syrian refugee doctors trying to keep their people alive, and talks to refugees living with chronic disease; like 14 year old Abboudi, and his father Mahmoud who are both struggling to keep their type 1 diabetes under control.
Mahmoud tells Dateline: “In Syria, we were living happily, praise be to God. For instance, if my son gets sick, I’d take him to any hospital for free. They don’t charge us. Everything was available. Schools were available. Free medication, everything. Praise be to God we were happy.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) diabetes was one of the most prevalent illnesses in Syria with at least one in 10 Syrians living with the disease. But that was when Syria had a functioning healthcare system.
Lebanon has stopped registering Syrian refugees, so most Syrians no longer have official access to the health care system. This has forced new arrivals with chronic disease to fend for themselves or rely on vastly over-stretched charities for their healthcare needs. But for someone like Abboudi with type 1 diabetes, lack of insulin – the hormone needed to control blood glucose levels – can cause complications just as deadly as the war zone he fled.
Dr Sparrow explains that the Syrian health care system was deliberately destroyed, causing the ‘weaponisation of health care’ – the strategy of using people’s need for health care as a weapon against them by violently depriving them of it. This has translated into hundreds of health workers killed, hundreds more incarcerated or tortured, and hundreds of health facilities deliberately and systematically attacked. Insulin was previously free for all registered users with the government-run National Diabetes Program. But now, Syria’s only insulin factory has been bombed. WHO estimates that 60% of insulin dependent diabetics in Syria are at risk of serious health complication because of limited supplies of the drug.
Dateline presenter Sarah Abo was four when her family left Syria for a better life in Australia. For her, meeting four year old Syrian children in the Bekaa Valley camps is a powerful reminder of the different life her family may be living if they had stayed in their homeland.
Sarah examines the never-ending plight of refugees from her homeland as they try to survive in Lebanon – a country whose capacity to help has peaked.
Tuesday 22 August 9.30pm on SBS.