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Aid agencies move to block virus outbreak in Syria rebel-held region

Beirut (AFP) - Aid agencies are moving to prevent a novel coronavirus outbreak in conflict-plagued northwestern Syria, where damaged health infrastructure and massive displacement make containment a nearly impossible task.

Syria has not yet confirmed any coronavirus cases but its "fragile health systems may not have the capacity to detect and respond" to an epidemic, Hedinn Halldorsson, a World Health Organization spokesman, told AFP.

The risk of an outbreak is especially high and most alarming in Syria's northwest, where some three million people are trapped in a shrinking rebel bastion battered by months of bombardment.

With close to one million people displaced since December by a Russian-backed regime offensive on the Idlib region, overcrowded settlements are teeming with fresh arrivals, and many of the displaced are sleeping rough in freezing temperatures.

Medical facilities have been targeted during the latest bombing campaign, further reducing the capacity of a health system ravaged by nearly nine years of conflict.

Unable to provide services from government-held territory inside Syria, the WHO provides cross-border assistance to rebel-held Idlib via Turkey, Halldorsson said.

Health personnel are being trained, "and laboratories in both Idlib and Ankara are being prepared and stocked to safely test and diagnose the virus", he added.

- 'Ripe' conditions -

A Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal went into effect Friday, bringing relative calm to Idlib for the first time in months.

But many fear the fighting will eventually resume, in a further challenge to efforts to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee said the situation in Idlib was "especially ripe for a spread" of the virus.

"An outbreak would be devastating for thousands whose health status is already compromised due to lack of sufficient food, clean water and exposure to cold weather," she told AFP.

Buswell said the IRC was focusing on "enhancing preventative measures" by raising awareness, providing medical supplies and strengthening disease surveillance and reporting systems.

"If an outbreak is reported, we will work with local health actors to activate a response," Buswell said.

Mustafa al-Abdo, the deputy head of Idlib's opposition-run health department, appealed for the formation of an isolated medical centre that would be ready to receive cases.

He also called on aid agencies to equip health workers with testing kits, medical masks, gloves and other equipment for prevention.

Local doctors are also playing their part in preventing an outbreak.

Near the Turkish border on Sunday, Zaher Hanak, a Syrian doctor, delivered a health awareness lecture on the novel coronavirus to some 20 attendees.

Speaking to AFP after the session, he said the lecture was necessary to combat misinformation on the virus.

Discussing prevention measures, he said local authorities "are currently looking for a place to quarantine" potential cases.

But he warned that some coronavirus detection tools were unavailable because of high costs.


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