Latest Syria gas attacks have likely cost lives: NGO doctor


Paris (AFP)

After dozens of people suffered breathing problems in the latest suspected chemical attack to hit Syria, AFP asked doctor Raphael Pitti about the medical effects of such a strike.

Pitti, whose Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) provides medical care to civilians across Syria, said it was very likely that the use of toxic gases had killed people in the battered rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta in recent weeks.

A French anesthesiologist and former military doctor, Pitti has been to Syria several times and his NGO has a network of contacts there.

- How much do we know about the latest suspected chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta? -

The fighting was very violent yesterday (Wednesday) evening. There was a real drive to make sure the rebels were not in a position to resist, and so they used chlorine because it is a weapon that is ideal for pushing them back.

I've been informed that missiles containing chlorine were fired, as well as major and sustained artillery fire and bombardments with napalm and phosphorous.

To our knowledge, 124 people suffered breathing problems in Saqba and Hammuriyeh and more than 100 civilians were killed by bombs.

- Could the suspected chlorine attacks in recent weeks have killed people, given that only cases of breathing problems have been reported? -

Absolutely. Most of the time, those most seriously injured die at the scene within an hour. They don't make it to hospital. They die of oxygen deprivation.

But no one takes stock of the dead; they are buried immediately. Nobody does an autopsy to determine what killed them.

- What are the medical effects of a chlorine attack and how are the injured treated? -

It causes lesions, a burn if you like, of the lung tissue.

The chlorine also damages the mucous membrane and so there will be an immediate burning sensation, a burning in the airways which will shrink the diameter of the bronchial tubes.

This makes it difficult to breathe, like you're having an asthma attack.

For those who are lightly injured, the only thing you can do is send them home, because the doctors do not have bottled oxygen.

They can give out inhalers which will make it easier to breathe eventually.

There is also a trend towards using steroids like cortisone, but these will certainly not reduce the burning sensation. It could even make it easier for the airways to become infected.

But unfortunately, they're making do with what they have.

For the most serious injuries, you have to put them to sleep, intubate them, put them on a respirator. You need access to intensive care facilities.