The siege imposed by Assad’s army has changed life in the besieged areas, creating difficult and deteriorating conditions. By denying the necessities of life, the regime has produced the ideal environment for new diseases to spread. The story of Hiba, a 10-year-old girl, is just one of the stories that depicts the worsening situation.
Hiba is a calm child, she grew up under siege and in prolonged displacement in a small town in Eastern Ghouta. But her injury went ignored, so this pretty girl’s head became the perfect environment for worms to grow, reproduce, and feed. She was diagnosed with a disease called myiasis.
Hiba’s head had been injured when the regime’s army fired a mortar shell at her neighborhood. Her injury was neglected because so many other injuries required more attention, and because the only medical center in the area lacked medicine and sterilizers. The siege had a dire impact on her life, education, and daily routine. Hiba is only 130 cm tall, weighing 25 kg, and the few words she used to describe her condition showed that she has poor concentration and understanding.
Three years ago, the town’s school was destroyed, so Hiba couldn’t even finish second grade. Seven days ago, her head became itchy, and red spots started appearing. Since the air strikes destroyed the national hospital in the town, the hospital was closed and replaced by a small medical center lacking any modern equipment, effective medicine, or labs. Hiba went to the center for treatment for her injury, and they treated her allergy with ointments, but that didn’t stop her pain.
Hiba’s condition grew worse, as the pain prevented her from sleeping and the pustules that appeared on her head spread all over her body, threatening her life. Her doctor—the head of Al-Rahma Medical Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases—said that when the girl came to the center, she was diagnosed with “myiasis.” Her face had swollen up because of the secretions of screwworm flies that were extracted from her head.
To escape death and bombing, the family—as with many others— had been forced to move a lot within the Eastern Ghouta area. They left their house, moved twice, and are now living in ill-equipped temporary housing. The girl spends her time bringing in water and helping her mom get food and collect the logs they use for heating. She bathes only once a week, or every 10 days, because it’s so hard to get water or hygienic necessities.
In medical terms, myiasis is a disease that infects humans and various animals differently. It is caused by a screwworm fly that lays its eggs inside infected wounds or uncovered food. The larvae might crawl inside unclean ears or noses, or get inside the body through polluted drinking water. It is often found in neglected wounds, eyes, ears, noses, the skin, as well as the digestive, urinary, and reproductive tracts.
This disease is unprecedented in Syria, but it’s recent appearance has been brought about by the siege, poverty, and the proliferation of insects, garbage, rodents, and stray cats and dogs, which are considered the best incubators of myiasis. The shutdown of so many utilities and institutions, along with the absence of all hygienic necessities like sterilizers and clean water, have also helped the disease. Hiba’s father, a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said that his girl was healthy before Bashar al-Assad’s army imposed the siege. He also said that most kinds of food are unavailable—they only have one meal a day, which consists of whatever food can still be found in the besieged Ghouta (barley bread, moldy hard bread, and the few cheap kinds of vegetables available). The girl, according to her father, is deprived of many of the necessary nutritional and medicinal products, which are expensive and blocked from entering the area.
Dr. Majed Abu Ali, a member of the unified medical office in Eastern Ghouta, confirmed that this was the fourth known case of the disease in Eastern Ghouta. In Almarj, a town in Eastern Ghouta, worms were found inside a man’s ear. Worms were also found under the eyelids of another man, and there were other cases that were not examined. The doctor pointed out that a lack of medicine, sterilizers, and clean water created the circumstances suitable for the disease to spread. He held the regime responsible for the diseases—previously unheard of—that appeared after the siege started. Dr. Abu Ali confirmed that the spread of the disease is clear evidence of the area’s poor health conditions. He called on the international health organizations to pay more attention to the people of the besieged areas, who are clearly left out of the international community’s accounts, though more than a million people are facing various forms of genocide, but are oddly ignored by the international community.
The lack of water is one of the major problems in Eastern Ghouta and the other besieged areas, and it impacts all aspects of life, especially people’s health. The regime’s air forces deliberately bombed most parts of the main water network, so now the people there depend on water they can extract from wells manually, since there is neither the electricity or the fuel needed to run the turbines. But people get only a little water from this method, and it is completely untreated.
While insects are considered to be the main cause of these diseases, there is also the issue of the new landfills and their harmful effect on the environment from their bad odor. And the landfills also harbor disease-causing insects. Despite all the efforts of the local councils who try to use their limited capabilities to collect the garbage and put it in temporary dumps, the dumps still remain inside the besieged areas. There is also no equipment with which to properly bury the garbage, further contributing to the perfect environment for insects, rodents, and other things to live and reproduce. People usually burn the dumps, but that releases harmful gases that mix with the smell of bombs and the gunpowder, producing a very bad smell. The problem is that not only is there no possible way to remove the garbage, but also no way for anyone to get into or out of Eastern Ghouta.