The U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, on Friday chastised both sides for failing to improve access along the lines laid out in an Oct. 2 U.N. statement and described the situation as a “race against time.”
The crisis has intensified over the past month, with the WHO reporting 22 suspected cases of polio in Deir al-Zour — which, if confirmed, would mark the first outbreak of the debilitating virus in Syria in 14 years.
U.N. agencies are mobilizing an emergency plan to vaccinate more than 2.5 million children against polio, but with cross-border operations from neighboring countries and operations across front lines hampered by red tape and security concerns, they concede it will be a major challenge.
In addition to polio, communicable diseases such as measles and hepatitis are threatening Syria’s vulnerable.
Some of the most desperate conditions are in rebel-held enclaves under siege by government forces, such as those on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in Homs and Aleppo. There, field hospital doctors say, they have documented children dying of starvation.
“My children dream of bread,” said Zahra, a 26-year-old mother from the Damascus suburb of Moadamiya who is pregnant with her fourth child and did not wish to give her last name. The area has been under siege for almost a year, and Zahra said her family is being slowly starved but can’t leave because their way is blocked by snipers and checkpoints.
Two of her daughters have anemia because of iron deficiency. Family meals have been reduced to one a day, normally a broth made from whatever can be scraped together.
“What keeps us going is the hope that things will get better, that we will get out,” she said. She tried to leave three times in an evacuation effort brokered by a pro-government nun this month. But the effort was aborted when shells hit just yards from the area where hundreds of civilians were waiting to board buses to leave.
The United States has accused the Syrian government of deliberately preventing the delivery of lifesaving relief, describing it as “unconscionable.”
Rasheed al-Wazzan, a physician in Moadamiya’s field hospital, said six people, including four children, have died of malnutrition in the suburb.
Although more than 100,000 people have been killed in the war, according to U.N. and activist estimates, there are no figures on how many thousands more may have died from treatable conditions due to a lack of supplies and Syria’s devastated health-care system.
Doctors Without Borders, which says it has confirmed cases of malnutrition, expects cases to spread in northern Syria during the winter months as food supplies run low and inflated prices mean that many struggle to feed their families.