MSF reports thousands of Syrians with neurotoxic symptoms

Three hospitals in Syria's Damascus governorate received approximately 3,600 neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of August 21, international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières said on Saturday.

While MSF staff members have not been able to access the hospitals due to security risks, the hospitals reported to MSF that 355 of the patients died as a result of neurotoxic symptoms. Neurotoxic agents are prohibited under international laws prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons.

"Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress," Bart Janssens, MSF's director of operations, said.

Patients were treated with drugs supplied by MSF, including atropine, a medication used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. The international organization is now trying to replenish the empty stocks of the facilities.

"MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack," Janssens said. "However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events-characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers-strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons."

MSF has supplied 1,600 vials of atropine in recent months to facilities in Syria. MSF dispatched an additional 7,000 vials to facilities in the area. The treatment of neurotoxic patients is being fully integrated into MSF's medical strategies in all its Syrian programs.

"MSF hopes that independent investigators will be given immediate access to shed light on what happened," Christopher Stokes, MSF's general director, said. "This latest attack and subsequent massive medical need come on top of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation, characterized by extreme violence, displacement, and deliberate destruction of medical facilities. In the case of such extreme violations of humanitarian law, humanitarian assistance cannot respond effectively and becomes meaningless itself."

Between June 2012 and June, MSF teams conducted 55,000 medical consultations, 2,800 surgical procedures and assisted in 1,000 births in Syria.