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Swine and Bird Flu on the Rise Across Syria

Deaths related to swine and bird flu are beginning to emerge across Syria. While the government has remained tight-lipped about the scale of the issue, state-controlled media outlets are finally starting to release figures for cases across the country.

Written byNai Saleh & Majd Mousa Published on Feb. 3, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Wael recovered from swine flu last week after being treated at the al-Bassel Hospital in Tartus. “I was very close to death,” he said. “If I had not made it to the hospital in time and received the right treatment, I would be dead by now,” he added. Because of the rising number of swine flu cases, according to Wael, nobody is allowed into the al-Bassel Hospital unless they are wearing a face mask.

The disease has reached the nearby province of Latakia as well; the first death due to swine flu occurred in a 26-year-old doctor named Tony Saba who worked at the Tishreen Military Hospital in Latakia. Saba’s friends have questioned medical and media reports claiming the swine flu virus causes deaths only in old people, children and those with compromised immune systems. They also confirmed that Saba did not have any chronic diseases or underlying immunodeficiency.

Government Cover-Up as Disease Spreads

Abu Jafar, who owned a dairy shop in Dahiyat Tishreen in Latakia, died last week at the National Hospital in the city.

The doctor who was overseeing his case said that the primary cause of Abu Jafar’s death was “viral pneumonia,” which is considered the most serious complication of swine flu. The hospital administration, however, tested all of his family members for the virus, and asked them not to publish the cause of their son’s death.

Despite the secrecy surrounding the number of cases, anonymous medical sources have confirmed that swine flu led to the death of at least one person in the city of Muhardeh in the Hama Governorate, and that there have been some 20 other critical cases throughout the city.

What makes the situation even more serious is the possible spread of bird flu in the city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria. Many residents are scared, particularly after one person at the National Hospital died after displaying symptoms very similar to bird flu, coupled with the news that many birds in South Qamishli’s bird farms have recently died.

Rozana’s correspondent in Qamishli spoke with Akhteen Asaad, a doctor in the city’s local hospital, who said that six people had died in the hospital, though he refused to specify whether the cause of death was bird flu or pneumonia. According to the same doctor, up until this point, the hospital administration has not sent any samples to Damascus for laboratory testing and disease identification.

Bird flu has reached Tal Abyad in northern Syria as well. Many sources said there have been 15 cases in the city, and Rozana’s correspondent on the Turkish border, Ayman Bakkour, confirmed that two Syrians had died from swine flu in the Turkish city of Urfa.

“The symptoms of swine flu are the same as those of the common flu, except that they are much more intense. They start with a high fever, from 39 to 40 degrees Celsius [102 to 104 Fahrenheit], accompanied by fatigue, body aches, cough, lack of appetite and nausea,” said Fatima, a laboratory physician working in Syria. “The symptoms soon intensify, causing difficulty in breathing, confusion and, in some cases, pneumonia and severe heart and respiratory failure.”

Fatima said she was shocked that the Syrian government’s Health Directorates are still forcing state secrecy on the issue, “even though laboratory tests have confirmed five cases in the Assad Hospital, and six cases in the National Hospital in Latakia, in addition to other cases in private hospitals.”

The State Plays Down the Numbers

The Syrian government’s Ministry of Health and its directorates do not admit to the growing danger of swine flu, insisting that cases in Syria do not exceed normal numbers. However, last Monday, the state-owned Tishreen newspaper published an article about the spread of swine flu in Syria.

According to the newspaper’s sources, swine flu is thought to be behind six deaths in the city of Tartus as of last Sunday, January 31. Additionally, 25 people are suspected of having the flu in the al-Bassel Hospital, two of whom are in a critical condition. According to the same article, there were nine cases in al-Qadmous, three in al-Sheik Badr and one in Banias – all in Tartus – and one case in the town of Dreikeesh in Latakia. The newspaper attributed the high number of deaths and illnesses to the lack of specialized treatment facilities in the province.

The newspaper even revealed that a high-level crisis management group was formed in the city of Tartus, which was charged with keeping the disease under control and distributing vaccines to all public hospitals in the relatively small city.

Exploiting People’s Fear

Ammar is a close observer of social networking sites and very interested in the “pandemic of influenza,” as he calls it. “Since the regime revealed this much information, it should be clear to us that the reality is much worse,” he said regarding the newspaper report.

In some areas, parents are keeping their children home from school, while others have considered leaving the country. “If the virus continues to spread at this rate, we will have to leave the country. What we hear from people is scary,” said Samia, a mother from Tartus.

In the middle of all of this, some are willing to exploit other people’s fear in order to make some extra money. According to Tawfiq, a pharmacist from Latakia, “many pharmacists use people’s fear of the disease, selling scared customers seasonal flu vaccines for very high prices and claiming that they are vaccines for swine flu, even though there is no specific vaccine for swine flu.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

This article was originally published by Rozana Radio and is reprinted here with permission.

Top image: Syrians buying chickens from the bird market in downtown Damascus. (Associated Press)