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Call to Aid Syrian Refugees with Cancer

syrian refugees
The United Nation refugee agency’s top medical expert has recently published a warning of the dangers of overwhelmed health care systems in Jordan and Syria, which are flooded with Syrian refugees.

This client base of Syrian refugees does not arrive with marks of external violence or chemical warfare, but instead arrive fighting against a more internalized battlefield — cancer.

Paul Spiegel, the top medical expert of UNHCR, was quoted in the latest edition of The Lancet Oncology, the leading British medical journal, explaining how the overwhelming of the health care systems forces “UNHCR offices and partners to make agonizing decisions over who does and doesn’t receive care.” Siegel has documented hundreds of refugees in Jordan and Syria denied cancer treatment on account of limited funds.

So far there are more than one million documented Syrian refugees in Lebanon and 600,000 in Jordan. In the case of Lebanon, that number is expected to continue to increase, reaching 1.5 million by the end of 2014 (already equivalent to a third of Lebanon’s pre-Syria war population).

“We have to turn away cancer patients with poor prognoses because caring for them is too expensive. After losing everything at home, cancer patients face even greater suffering abroad – often at a huge emotional and financial cost to their families,” Siegel remarked.

For most cases, denial is based on poor prognosis, as a patient’s unlikely chance of recovery prompts committees to invest the limited money on more promising cases. In Jordan alone, between 2010 and 2012, the UNHCR’s Exceptional Care Committee was only able to approve 246 out of 511, or 48 percent, of the refugee applications for cancer treatment.

Amnesty International, in a newly released report, found that the inaccessibility of health care in Lebanon has prompted some refugees to return to Syria in order to receive the treatment they need.

“Hospital treatment and more specialized care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is woefully insufficient, with the situation exacerbated by a massive shortage of international funding,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Thematic Issues.

While Amnesty acknowledges the strain on resources, including health care, caused by the wave of refugees entering Lebanon, the organization is calling on the government of Lebanon to adopt long-term strategies in order to properly address health care needs. Similarly, the organization called on the international community to step up and provide assistance to the Syrian refugees.

UNHCR outlined possible new approaches in a press release, stating solutions could include “mobile and online information campaigns focusing on preventive health and new financing models such as crowd-funding and potentially health insurance.”

No matter what solution is adopted by the asylum countries, the UNHCR’s biggest concern is avoiding inequality between host communities and refugees.

In the meantime, readers should not only support international organizations combatting this internalized war-zone amongst patients, but also support the 21st Century Global Health Technology Act. By calling one’s local legislators about this important bipartisan bill, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) could have the authority to strengthen the development of health products that are affordable, culturally appropriate and easy to use in low-resource health systems.

— Blythe Riggan

Sources: Amnesty, Borgen, UNHCR 1, UNHCR 2
Photo: The Independent