BFF-01 In north Syria, skin disease ravages young and old

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In north Syria, skin disease ravages young and old

AL KARAMAH, Syria, April 25, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Inside a dank clinic in the
north of war-torn Syria, a girl covered in scabs wails and tries to wriggle
out of her mother’s arms to escape a nurse’s needle.

Gently holding fluffy cotton wool over her eyes, the male health worker
injects a transparent liquid into the crusty blemishes on the tip of her
nose.

She is one of hundreds in the northern province of Raqa to be suffering
from leishmaniasis, a skin disease caused by a microscopic parasite spread by
sandflies.

The illness is endemic to Syria, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says,
but has become more prevalent during the eight-year civil war.

Dozens of children and adults are seeking treatment between the damp-
smelling walls of the health centre in the northern town of Karama.

Among them, 15-year-old Shaza al-Omar awaits her turn.

“I’ve got some on my leg, my sister’s got 11 lesions on her face, and my
brother has some on his eye,” says the teenager, draped from head to toe in
black.

Not far off, a father tries in vain to pacify his toddler daughter, who
screams as the nurse injects solution into lesions on her face.

Once it is over, he carries her out of the clinic clutching a large packet
of potato crisps.

A woman sits on a stretcher, an ailing leg stretched out in front on her,
as a nurse injects medicine into one blemish after another.

– ‘Marshes, rubbish’ –

The number of leishmaniasis cases in Syria doubled from 2010 to 2018 to
more than 80,000 patients, WHO says.

Many were in northern and northeastern areas rocked in recent years by
clashes to expel the Islamic State group.

At the health centre in Karama, Wadha al-Jarrad, 55, has rushed in to ask
about treatment for her family — her grandchildren, her daughter-in-law, and
even her elderly husband.

“He’s always scratching it until it bleeds,” she says of her husband’s sore
on his hand.

“He itches it, and I tell him not to,” says Jarrad, a black and white
scarf wrapped around her greying hair.

“We can’t sleep at night because of all the flies,” she adds.

Leishmaniasis is usually linked to poverty, poor sanitation, and
malnutrition, WHO says, factors likely compounded by the war.

Across Karama, insects hover over piles of rubbish between rows of modest
houses, some still bearing scars of battles that resulted in Kurdish-led
forces kicking IS out in 2017.

Younes al-Naeemi, the manager of the Karama health centre, says the clinic
has received 4,000 cases of leishmaniasis from the town and surrounding
villages since April last year. “Marshes, humidity, the house’s proximity to
farming land, as well as widespread rubbish” have fuelled the spread of the
skin condition, he says.

But lack of awareness has also compounded the problem.

Some people “come immediately after discovering they have been affected,
while others don’t do anything until it gets worse and treatment becomes much
harder,” he says.

“Treatment is available, but awareness is more important,” he says.

– ‘Nobody cares’ –

After a peak of almost 6,800 cases in Raqa province last year, WHO says
there has been a decline in cases at the start of this year.

The international organisation has distributed mosquito nets, provided
medicine to treat the disease, and supports six health centres in Raqa,
including in Karama.

But it warns the rates could again rise as the weather becomes warmer.

“Sandfly breeding usually peaks when the temperature starts to rise in
spring and summer,” WHO spokesman Yahya Bouzo said.

“Unless prevention measures are taken, the number of cases is expected to”
increase.

But Karama’s residents say their rural town is neglected.

They complain of a lack of services including regular trash pick-ups.

Hussein Hamoud, 50, says official measures taken to counter the spread of
the disease were simply not enough.

“They once sprayed insecticide inside the houses, but then they never did
again,” he says.

“Nobody cares. If there was even the slightest concern, this would not
have happened,” he says, referring to leishmaniasis.

At a primary school in the nearby village of Jadeeda, a young boy sits
upright in his seat, a blemish on his cheek.

Outside the classroom, school director Abd Zeen al-Morei pulls up his
jeans to show off leishmaniasis marks on his leg.

“I’ve got 15 lesions all over my body and I’m still receiving treatment,”
says the 26-year-old.

Up to 40 children at the school also have the skin disease.

BSS/AFP/FI/ 0745 hrs