DAMASCUS — Adequate healthcare for expectant mothers continues to be a concern for women worldwide. For the better part of a decade, Syria has been ripped to shreds by a civil war between competing religious and political ideologies as well as intervening world powers hoping to have some sway over the outcome. In times of crisis, women suffer uniquely and endure blows to their reproductive health as hospitals become indisposed. Maternal health in Syria and surrounding refugee camps is rapidly declining, resulting in dangerous contraceptive and delivery methods.
Before the start of the war, 96 percent of Syrian women had professional medical assistance while giving birth. In fact, the quality of the healthcare infrastructure was on the rise prior to the conflict. The maternal mortality rate dropped from 482 per 100,000 births in 1970 to an astonishing 52 in 2009. Pre-war Syria also saw a dramatic decrease in deaths resulting from communicable diseases, with 77 percent of deaths caused by noncommunicable illnesses in 2009.
Now, six years later, services for maternal health in Syria are virtually nonexistent. Infectious diseases such as polio, which was eradicated from pre-war Syria, are now making a comeback as an immunization vacuum persists in Syria’s shattered healthcare system. With hospitals and other healthcare facilities routinely targeted by government forces to restrict access to basic care in rebel-held territories, medical practices have all but disappeared. Two-thirds of medical professionals have fled the country. More than half of hospitals have either been shut down or are only partially operational.
Because remaining hospitals are not properly protected against airstrikes, women give birth in the streets or in their homes rather than risk falling shells. Additionally, the unpredictable bombings make mobility difficult. So many of the women who do accept the risks of going to the remaining hospitals choose to have cesarean sections to control time of birth so that they can flee at a moment’s notice. The rate of C-sections has doubled for Syrian women. This alarming statistic is resulting in numerous hazards threatening maternal health in Syria.
Performing C-sections is inherently risky, even under the best circumstances. So coupled with an unstable environment, unsanitary or unavailable medical equipment and the deterioration of women’s mental and physical health, the chance of contracting infection is high as is the risk of hemorrhaging. Imminent death for the baby is also a likelihood as the newborns are often malnourished and sick, with little to no postnatal care available.
While there seems to be no end in sight for the war and maternal health in Syria is bleak, there are honorable global efforts to relieve the incomprehensible violence and suffering. International Medical Corps is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that acts as a global first responder in times of international crisis. It provides emergency medical and psychological care to Syrians and neighboring countries bearing the brunt of refugees.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is another organization providing aid to Syria. With the reproductive health of women and girls at its core, in 2016 it reached more than one million individuals with sexual health and gender-based violence services in Syria alone. UNFPA runs the only maternal health clinic in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where thousands of babies have been born with zero maternal deaths.
Organizations like UNFPA and International Medical Corps are crucial forces that provide essential aid to underserved communities in times of crisis. Earlier this year, President Trump announced plans to withdraw $76 million in funding from UNFPA. This decision would decrease the organization’s funding by 7 percent. While that may not seem like much, the fallout would be substantial. It is estimated 48,000 Syrian women would lose access to safe deliveries as result of the budget slashing.
In these times, when maternal health in Syria is historically low it is now more important than ever to increase efforts to protect women and children suffering from the ravages of war. Decreasing aid and funding for organizations providing necessary aid and basic health to a country as vulnerable as Syria could have catastrophic results on the people who are just struggling to survive each day.
– Micaela Fischer