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Coronavirus testing to start within days in northwest Syria: WHO

Mar 23,2020 - Last updated at Mar 23,2020

The World Health Organisation will begin testing for the coronavirus in Syria's northwest as fears grow for people trapped there by war especially displaced Syrians living in packed camps (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — Testing for the novel coronavirus is to start within days in northwest Syria, the World Health Organisation(WHO) said on  Monday, amid fears of a disaster if the pandemic reached overcrowded displacement camps.

Home to some 3 million people, the rebel-held region of Idlib has yet to record a single coronavirus case, but conditions in the country's last major rebel bastion are especially "ripe" for an outbreak, aid groups have warned.

In the latest wave of displacement, nearly 1  million people in the northwest have been forced from their homes by a blistering regime offensive, which has slowed since a ceasefire went into effect this month.

But a large number of people continue to live in tented camps and makeshift housing along the Turkish border, where basic hygiene is lacking.

This has prompted deep concern after the government in Damascus on Sunday announced the country's first official coronavirus case.

"Testing will be available in Idlib in two days," WHO spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson said on Monday.

Some 300 COVID-19 diagnostic kits are to be delivered to a laboratory in Idlib city on Wednesday and "testing should start shortly afterwards," he said.

An additional 2,000 tests would be delivered as soon as possible, he added.

Technicians in Idlib have been trained to use the kits and laboratories in neighbouring Turkey would also be on standby to help if needed.

As part of a wider response plan for the region, three hospitals with intensive care units have been modified as isolation units equipped with ventilators, the WHO spokesman said.

Up to 1,000 healthcare workers have been mobilised and a new delivery of protective gear -- including 10,000 surgical masks and 500 respirator masks -- should arrive within the week.

 'Extremely concerned'

So far three suspected cases in northwest Syria have tested negative after hospitals sent samples to Turkey, Halldorsson said, but concern remains high.

"WHO is extremely concerned about the impact COVID-19 may have in the northwest," Halldorsson said.

"Displaced people [there]  live under conditions that make them vulnerable to respiratory infections," he told AFP.

Those included overcrowded living conditions, physical and mental stress, as well as lack of housing, food and clean water.

Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee on Monday said deplorable living conditions in Idlib have "already left hundreds of thousands of people in poor health, making them even more vulnerable."

"It is possible that the disease is already making its way through the population" in Idlib, she said in a statement.

Eighty five attacks on health facilities last year make the region all the more vulnerable, she warned.

"The majority of hospitals that remain open are unable to cope with needs that already exist," Buswell said.

Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged the country's infrastructure since starting in 2011 .

Over the past week, the Damascus authorities have taken increased measures to stem the spread of the virus.

Schools, universities and restaurants have been closed and prayer gatherings suspended.

Travellers from affected countries are banned from entering the country and the land border was closed with Lebanon, where 256 people are infected and four have died from the virus.

The Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria have not recorded any deaths so far, but have imposed a curfew in a bid to stem any outbreak.

 

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