Aid groups move to block virus outbreak in Syria rebel pocket

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A camp for displaced Syrians in Deir Hassan in the northern countryside of Idlib, near the Turkish border

A camp for displaced Syrians in Deir Hassan in the northern countryside of Idlib, near the Turkish border (AFP Photo/Aaref WATAD)

Beirut (AFP) - Aid agencies are moving to prevent a novel coronavirus outbreak in war-torn northwestern Syria, where devastated 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, said World Health Organization spokesman Hedinn Halldorsson.

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 deadly 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.

Many are still sleeping rough in what has been bitter cold.

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 told AFP.

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 on 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 preventing the illness arriving, but would work with "local health actors" to respond to any outbreak.

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.

In Damascus, authorities on Sunday announced a one-month closure in air and land links with neighbours Jordan and Iraq, including for religious tourism.

A two-month suspension on all links is to be imposed on countries which have declared a COVID-19 epidemic on their territory, the government said on its Facebook page.