Activists appeal on Twitter for drugs to treat Syria’s gas attack victims

by Karrie Kehoe and Emma Batha | @karriekehoe | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 2 September 2013 14:44 GMT

Girls who survived what activists say is a gas attack rest inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus, August 21, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

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English and Arabic speakers are using Twitter and Facebook to call for donations to buy the drug atropine, used to treat neurotoxic symptoms

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Aid agencies and activists are taking to social media sites Twitter and Facebook to appeal for life-saving drugs in case of any further poison gas attacks in Syria.

The United States says more than 1,400 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Aug 21. It is thought to be the worst use of chemical arms since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

In response, activists inside and outside Syria are using Twitter and Facebook to ask for donations to purchase atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. English and Arabic speakers are sharing links to websites set up to receive donations to buy the drug for Syrian hospitals.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says hospitals it supports in the Damascus area ran out of the drug following the attack.

One tweet by an activist, describing herself as a Syrian living in Jordan, read: “You can save a life today if you can provide us with # Atropine injections for civilians infected by chemical poisoning in # syria # amman

Another user, whose profile said she was a Syrian living in Austin, Texas, tweeted: “We need lots and lots of ATROPINE, please donate and save a life now.”

The email address is being shared among users, as are links to websites detailing how to administer doses of the drug.

Hemmah Volunteering Group, a Jordan-based organisation that works in humanitarian emergencies and on development, has run its own donation appeal, purchasing 50,000 doses of atropine.

Hemmah told Thomson Reuters Foundation that soon after the Aug 21 attack, medical supply houses in Jordan started running out of atropine. In response, several of its volunteers travelled to Lebanon to buy the drug.

Hemmah transported 10,000 doses of atropine and other medical supplies to Damascus on Aug 24. It has not yet managed to deliver the remaining 40,000 batches of atropine injections to Syria.

 “Crossing the border on the road from Amman to Damascus is not a problem as it is held by the Free Syrian Army,” Wesam Al Aladdad, Hemmah’s co-ordinating leader, said via Skype.

“Volunteers go longer routes on motorbikes or sometimes donkeys to avoid the Assad regime’s checkpoints,” he added, speaking through a translator.

In addition, Hemmah sent a $20,000 batch of general medical supplies to Syria in the wake of the attack.

MSF sent 15,000 vials of atropine last week. It said that three hospitals it supports reported receiving approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms on Aug 21. These included convulsions, excess saliva, abnormally constricted or pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress.

The aid agency said the treatment of patients with neurotoxic symptoms was now being fully integrated into all its medical programmes in Syria.

Another medical charity, Doctors of the World, is also distributing atropine to doctors in Syria.

“We’re facing a growing demand for atropine, in case of new chemical weapons attacks,” said Doctor Rafik Bedoui, medical coordinator for the aid agency’s Syria programme.

British charity Human Aid UK said it had sent 1,250 doses of atropine to Syria. It is buying the drugs in Turkey for £0.80 per dose and is trying to raise money to send another 8,000 doses as well as gas masks.

The agency said it had not had any problem with Syrian or Turkish authorities when taking the drugs across the border.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his European and Middle East allies have blamed President Bashar al-Assad for the attack. Syria has denied using chemical weapons and blamed the Free Syrian Army.

U.N. investigators left Syria on Friday after gathering evidence including tissue and blood samples, but it could be two weeks before their final report is ready.

However, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry stated on Saturday that tests confirmed that sarin gas was used to kill civilians in the attack on the rebel held area of Ghouta in Damascus on Aug 21.

Atropine is included in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Essential Drugs List – a list of minimum medical needs for a basic health care system. It is used in anaesthesia, resuscitation and eye procedures. It is also the most common drug used to combat the effects of nerve agents such as sarin, soman and tabun.

WHO refused to say whether it was sourcing atropine. It said it could not give any details about its emergency operations relating to Syria for security reasons.

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