Exclusive: Foreign doctors raise alarm over Syrian birth defects

The newly appointed International President of Médecins Sans Frontières has described the number of birth deformities as 'shocking'

Doctors working inside Syria are witnessing a “shocking” number of babies being born with severe deformities - a result of the collapse of the war-torn country's healthcare system.

The cases of Anencephaly - a condition which causes babies to be born without a major portion of the brain, skull and scalp - have been documented in the north of the country, an area in which antenatal care has virtually ceased to exist.

In most cases the baby dies immediately after birth, or is stillborn. The large number of cases witnessed in northern Syria is thought have been caused a lack of availability of folic acid - a supplement available to pregnant women across the world that helps prevent the condition.

The deformities and many other horrific injuries sustained as a result of the war were witnessed by Joanne Liu, the newly appointed International President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who left Syria last week after spending ten days working in a field hospital in the country.

Dr Liu took up her role as head of the organisation in October, and last month travelled to Syria to get first-hand experience of the conditions in which her staff worked. Due to the sensitivity of her mission, only the international staff working alongside her in the hospital knew of her position as head of the charity.

Working out of field hospital just kilometres from the frontline, Dr Liu witnessed high numbers of severe injuries to civilians and medical conditions symptomatic of a non-existent healthcare system.

In less than two weeks, she saw three babies with Anencephaly - two of which were alive when they were born, but later died. The third baby wall stillborn.

“We saw so many cases of babies born with malformations, and cases of Anencephaly. Some babies were born without heads,” she told The Independent. “I was trained as a paediatrician and have never seen anything this severe in my 20 years in practise.”

Médecins Sans Frontières is one of only a handful of aid agencies working in northern Syria - many are now staying away because of the perilous conditions and the risk of kidnap from extremist groups. The charity runs six field hospitals across the country, treating predominantly civilians who have been caught up in the fighting.

At the hospital, a former apartment building that has been transformed into a medical facility, Dr Liu treated pregnant women and children who were injured in airstrikes - further proof that the Syrian government is indiscriminately targeting civilian areas as it battles with rebels fighting to remove him from power.  

“On one day we received two pregnant women. One had a shrapnel wound to the thorax. She was six months pregnant and when she came in she couldn't breathe. She had dangerously low oxygen levels in her blood. We treated her and she pulled through, but the next day her baby died,” Dr Liu said.

“Another pregnant lady came in 3 minutes later. She was screaming bloody murder. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with her until I finally saw a hole the size of a tennis ball in her ankle. The foot had to be amputated but fortunately her baby survived.”

“They were just going to the market. They were bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she added.

On one particularly bloody day during her stay, Dr Liu received a number of children suffering from severe burns - victims of a barrel bomb that was dropped on a nearby school by the Syrian airforce.

“They were suffering from severe burns - some of them covered by more than 40 per cent. We did our best to stabilise them but when the injuries are that severe we have to transfer them to a bigger facility. On this occasion on of the children died on the way,” Dr Liu said.

MSF has previously warned that the targeting of medical facilities has brought the country's healthcare system to the point of “collapse.”

In October, a UN rapporteur reported that “32 of the country's 88 public hospitals have closed because of the ongoing conflict, and government and pro-government forces have arbitrarily detained, tortured, and killed hundreds of health workers and patients.” But some estimate that the situation is much worse.

Commenting on the unusual nature of her assignment, Dr Liu said: “If I am going to send my staff there, I should be able to go there and see first-hand what they are up against.”

MSF is calling for the international community to work towards allowing aid agencies to access areas where fighting is taking place.

“When UN chemical weapons inspectors need to be transported through conflict zones they can make it happen. Why can't we do the same for humanitarian aid?”

peoplePaper attempts to defend itself
voicesWe desperately need men to be feminists too
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Account Executive/Sales Consultant – Permanent – Hertfordshire - £16-£20k

    £16500 - £20000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    KS2 PPA Teacher needed (Mat Cover)- Worthing!

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: KS2 PPA Teacher currently nee...

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

    £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits