The Childhood Cancer Blog

Syrian Civil War Is Killing Kids' Chances Of Beating Cancer

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By Jay Scott

It is no secret that crimes are being committed in the civil war unfolding in Syria, costing hundreds of thousands of lives to be lost. What started as peaceful protests to challenge the dictatorship of the country has unfolded into quite simply an all-out war with the government using violence to take control, and civilians fighting back in the same manner. To date the conflict has killed more than 140,000 people and created millions of refugees, nearly half of them children. As evidenced by these statistics, the conflict is certainly capable of taking lives, but add to that the necessity of medical treatment for civilians -- whether it is giving birth, dealing with a chronic illness, or receiving chemotherapy -- and the conflict is becoming life-threatening in other ways too.

I know that I may be oversimplifying what is happening in Syria, and I am as horrified as any of you by the extreme violence that has taken place for far too long, but when I read a story about a young child battling cancer in the war-torn country, I couldn't help but realize how the basic essentials of life are being denied to the people of Syria. What would have been a life threatening and life altering illness has sadly become a death sentence for those affected.

The story that I am referring to was recently published in Timemagazine, and detailed 4-year-old Zacharia Delly's battle against childhood cancer. Zacharia was diagnosed with neuroblastoma last year, the very same cancer that my daughter Alex fought. As with many childhood neuroblastoma fighters, Zacharia was recommended a course of chemotherapy, but with the hospital near his home having been destroyed, he and his mother would have to travel two hours by bus for his treatment. They made it there for Zacharia's first treatment, and with his doctors pleased with his response, were scheduled to head back two weeks later. They wouldn't make it. The road in which they would have to travel was dangerous, and one in which Zacharia's mom feared would be unsafe.

Zacharia's family, like so many others before them, eventually fled the country, landing in Lebanon to seek treatment there. Though they had already overcome so many obstacles, they would face many more there, including being turned away from privately-run hospitals and finally learning that the delay of treatment would be too much for Zacharia. On Monday, March 17, Zacharia died, caught between a civil war and cancer, with a life too shortly lived.

Clearly, the inaccessibility to health care in Syria is only adding to the death toll of the war. A country that was once envied for its government-funded healthcare system is now only a shell of that, with 60 percent of its hospitals destroyed or damaged, and many doctors exiting the country as swiftly as everyone else. Childhood cancer aside, even if I'm biased on the topic, I read a story of a mother leaving a hospital against medical advice with her less than one day old infant due to sheer fear of what staying would mean. I don't know how that story ended, but I can only hope that it was not in the same manner of Zacharia.

I mourn for Zacharia and empathize with the questions his family must be facing -- could we have done more? But the truth in this conflict is that his family and millions of others have been left without a choice, they are paralyzed by fear. What is the answer here in a country that continues to deteriorate? The Timemagazine article cited a figure that since the start of the conflict 200,000 Syrians have died from illness due to a lack of access to treatment and drugs. When will this stop, and how will the country rebuild? I don't have the answers, but I know something has to be done, for Zacharia and for all the lives that are being lost. I can only hope that through the reading of this article others will come to be aware of the injustices that are taking place in Syria. I think many of us are aware of the fighting and conflict, but perhaps we aren't as aware of the consequences that this fighting has led to. I don't know when this will end, but I do know, especially now after reading the story of Zacharia, that something must be done to save the lives of children, the most valuable asset to a bright future in the war-torn country.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post, March 25, 2014