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Closed borders put cancer patients in Idlib at risk

Idlib, Northwest Syria – Lying on his hospital bed in a room full of other patients, Mustafa Eid watches from the intravenous solution entering his body, seemingly counting the drops, to the people around him, each with a needle in their arm dispensing the drugs that lie next hang them.

Eid, from Ariha south of Idlib, is at the hematology and oncology center in Idlib receiving his seventh dose of an advanced cancer treatment he is undergoing.

His first six doses were in Turkey, but after the massive earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, he says: “I heard that cancer patients were being stopped from entering Turkey for treatment…I felt like my death was near.”

Mustafa Eid and his son Mohamed (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

The treatment in Turkey would have been free, but this one dose cost the father of seven about $350, and he is deeply concerned about it.

“Today I took the first dose that some friends and relatives bought me, but I don’t know what I will do next because my treatment is long and very expensive,” Eid told Al Jazeera.

The Hematology and Oncology Center at Idlib Central Hospital, supported by the Syrian American Medical Society, is the only center in Idlib that offers free treatment to cancer patients.

The center is overworked; it rejects no one and struggles to treat them despite an acute shortage of chemotherapy drugs, some of which are not available at all in the centre’s pharmacy, and a lack of radiotherapy facilities. For some drugs that the Center does not have, the Center must ask patients to purchase them externally so that they can administer them.

Dr.  Jamo, wearing a black face mask and a white coat
Dr. Ayham Jamo, Head of Hematology and Oncology (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

Pressure on the center has increased since Turkish authorities closed the borders after the earthquake, leaving some of these patients on the Syrian side with nowhere else to go.

“Before the earthquake, our center received about 2,000 patients per month and administered about 500 doses per month. But after the earthquake, more than 50 patients returned from Turkey and received doses at our center,” said Dr Ayham Jamo, head of hematology and oncology at Idlib Central Hospital.

The shortage of the drug and the sometimes exorbitant costs required to get it elsewhere have become an obsession for many patients whose treatment schedules are essential to their recovery.

Hasna al-Obeid, 52, from Sheikh Bahr town in rural Idlib, came to the center to complete her breast cancer treatment, which she started in Antakya, Turkey. When the earthquake destroyed the hospital where she was being treated, she went back to Syria to see what her options were there.

The entrance to the Hematology and Oncology Center in Idlib
The Hematology and Oncology Center at Idlib Central Hospital (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

“I’m afraid that the treatment I’m receiving here will be stopped before I complete the treatment schedule because I don’t have enough money to buy it at my expense,” said al-Obeid.

“When I returned from Turkey, I didn’t get a medical exit permit as intended (because the hospital that was supposed to issue it had been destroyed), and I handed over my ID at the border crossing. I am afraid that I will not be able to return to Turkey if patients are allowed to complete their treatment there.”

“Delay in taking the doses on the specified days leads to a worsening of the patient’s health condition and may lead to the patient’s death,” said Dr. Jamo.

Due to poor medical capabilities in the region, the Medical Coordination Office at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is working to get approval from the Turkish side, allowing patients to receive free treatment in Turkish hospitals.

A doctor adjusts the needle for the intravenous treatment of Hasna al-Obaid
A doctor adjusts the needle for the intravenous treatment of Hasna al-Obaid (Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera)

Most of the treatment required is for newborns, heart disease and cancer patients, in addition to emergencies.

About 1,264 patients were transferred to Turkish hospitals in the past year, according to the Bab al-Hawa intersection, while the number of cancer patients reached 149 last January.

“Those most affected by the decision to close the intersection are cancer patients who need emergency intervention for their treatment, especially as the time factor is very important for their treatment,” said Dr Bashir Ismail, director of the medical center. Cross the documentation office of Bab al-Hawa.

Sources at Turkey’s Interior Ministry told Al Jazeera that transfers are allowed for emergencies.

“After the necessary measures taken after the earthquake, and the transition to the normalization of daily life in Turkey (areas affected by the earthquake), there has not been any ban or restriction on the transfers/crossings of emergency patients from Idlib to Turkey” , the sources said.

But Turkish authorities have yet to announce the date for reopening borders for all patients to receive treatment in Turkish hospitals, fueling patients’ fears.