The Syrian Refugee Crisis Strains Healthcare Systems
Since the start of the Syrian War in 2011, some 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homeland as refugees. Many now rely on donations or the support of other countries to survive, and their plight has become arguably the biggest humanitarian crisis of this century.
Those that fled left behind a devastated healthcare system, with more than half of Syria’s hospitals and medical centers now closed or partially working. In host countries, economic pressure and the influx of refugees en masse has also pushed the healthcare system to the limit. For these people, some of the most fundamental medical care and vaccinations have long been out of reach, even now in their host countries. Today, many of these refugees rely on NGOs for basic medical treatment.
It’s a problem that one agency’s funding is helping to solve. Over the last seven years the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (Kuwait Fund) has provided several grants totalling $377.5 million to support the needs of Syrian refugees. Spread across projects in host countries Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt, it’s a huge sum making a difference in fields few might expect.
Kuwait Fund supports The Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL) Mission to Provide Free Healthcare to Refugees
Every year, around 100 refugees in Lebanon are diagnosed with cancer, many of them children. With costs ranging from $55,000 to $150,000, few can afford the cure. Yet while outside funding for many serious medical treatments exists for refugees here, there has been a shortfall in tackling chronic diseases.
The Children’s Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL) was set up in 2002 to help local kids fight cancer. But in 2011, the influx of Syrian refugees increased the number of patients diagnosed with cancer dramatically. CCCL has since opened its doors to 592 Syrian patients.
What the money has enabled the CCCL to do is to bring treatment where it’s needed. For refugees in remote settlements, travel costs, roadblocks and restricted movement can be a hindrance to seeking help. Even in Covid times, where walk-in hospital numbers have shrunk in Lebanon, just like everywhere else, a hotline was set up to help those with aftercare, assuage fears or help arrange treatment.
The CCCL’s mission is to offer no barrier to treatment: any child aged up to 18 years old, local or refugee, is accepted, and at no cost. But more patients requires more funds. It takes around $16 million to finance operation for a year, which is where donors like the Kuwait Fund step in. It has approved three grants over the last five years, supporting more than 130 patients, in addition to a similar intervention in Jordan which has seen six grants approved to the King Hussain Cancer Center over the same period.
Treating Measles Amidst the COVID outbreak
While refugee cancer sufferers have to battle a lack of funding, for communicative diseases it’s a different kind of fight. More money may be available to help, but the challenge is no less a struggle.
Nearly 60 years on from the licensing of the first measles vaccine, between one and three in every 1,000 infected children still die from respiratory or neurological complications linked to this virus. It is worse in vulnerable communities such as refugee settlements. Half of all refugees in Lebanon surveyed by UNICEF in 2020 are suffering from food insecurity, and poor living conditions and malnutrition can increase measles death rates by up to 30%.
For many of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, they arrived in the midst of a major measles outbreak. By 2018, reported cases (944) had increased seven-fold on the previous year, and rose again (1,070) in 2019. They had swapped one crisis for another.
Yet hesitancy to take the vaccine amongst parents is caused by many factors. So, when in late 2019 a programme backed by the Kuwait Fund and jointly run by the WHO, UNICEF and the local health authorities set out to vaccinate over 900,000 children in Lebanon, it targeted these causes.
One major issue was healthcare. Private care is the norm in Lebanon, especially among local Lebanese, who accounted for 90% of measles cases. Some private schools and nurseries turned away free jabs on the advice of local doctors—who receive money for giving inoculations. Even among Syrians there is a preference to visit the private sector, and when combined with travel and vaccination fees, this may have led to hesitancy among parents.
The real battle was to win over parents. Messages went out in various Arabic dialects through radio, TV, billboards, SMS and leaflets. Local influencers even played a role.
And then Covid 19 struck.
“Families were asked to stay home. The fear of Covid 19 was huge, and extremely damaging to the behaviour of parents when following up on vaccinations,” recalls Dr Shankiti.
What should have taken six weeks stretched to months, yet the campaign was a success, with around 460,000 children aged between 6 months and 11 years receiving vaccinations for measles or MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), and nearly 480,000 given protection against polio. Measles wasn’t eliminated here, but it’s a huge job and one which future initiatives will hope to build on.
This example is one of many refugee projects funded by grants from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development to many developing nations across the world. To find out more, visit https://www.kuwait-fund.org