Increased Pregnancy Risks Among Syrian Women

Over three years of civil war has caused a destruction in the health infrastructure in Syria with women and children at the forefront of the suffering. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reports that women and children account for up to 75 percent of Syrian refugees—a number on the rise as one Syrian baby is born a refugee roughly every hour, joining the nearly six million Syrian children being raised in an environment of violence and despair. Many mothers flee Syria with their children to neighboring countries hoping to obtain medical attention at facilities set up to treat Syrian refugees.

At a time when the population is most vulnerable due to the ongoing violence, destruction, and displacement, a severe shortage of medical facilities, trained health workers, and essential health resources for Syrians can be found both inside and outside of the war zone. This includes a lack of maternal health services and products, which creates dangerous conditions for mothers and their babies from the time that they are conceived.

In April of this year, UNFPA estimated that there were approximately 372,000 pregnant women inside Syria, 17,000 pregnant Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 13,000 in Turkey, and 11,000 in Jordan. The prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care currently made available to displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees will reach only a painfully small fraction of these women and their babies. To add to the risks of pregnancy posed by the physical and environmental outcomes of war, the stress and anxiety suffered by Syrian women frequently results in an early labor and other health concerns.

Women living under blockaded areas inside Syria are at a much greater risk of dying as a result of preventable pregnancy complications. Often times these complications are connected to malnourishment or vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as anemia, which can lead to hemorrhaging or delivering prematurely. Living under siege means many women don’t have access to a specialized doctor. In order to reach medical care, a journey that includes roadblocks, checkpoints and other conflict hazards–which often discourage women from seeking care–must first be completed. To further limit medical accessibility, many women will refuse to see a doctor unless the doctor is a female. Without routine medical checks, proper prenatal supplements and emergency obstetric care, pregnancy in Syria’s besieged areas puts both the mother and her unborn child at an alarmingly high risk of fatality. As seen in countries previously affected by conflict, the state of Syria’s health system will likely result in long-lasting effects on maternal and infant mortality.

Lack of access to information about services is also an issue. While facilities where women are able to give birth under proper medical care do exist, pregnant women often have no idea where to find them. As an outcome, mothers are often left to give birth alone without trained assistance. The risks of delivering at home without a skilled birth attendant are incredibly high in general, and even higher where living conditions are cramped and often unsanitary—posing dangers for pregnant women.

Once they are born, babies enter a hazardous environment where the side effects of war become highly evident. During the grueling winter months, premature babies have reportedly died due to the unpredictable electricity’s failure to support their incubators. Though a high percentage of babies are being born prematurely or with defects that require close surveillance from a doctor, moms and babies are discharged from the hospital immediately because they are unable to afford to stay longer than a day.

An alarmingly high number of babies are being born to Syrian women with a variety of malformations. One in particular is a condition called anencephaly, which causes the baby to be born without a major portion of the brain, skull and scalp. Babies born with anencephaly often die immediately after birth. It is suspected that many of these conditions are due to inadequate prenatal nutrition or supplementation.

The shattering situation for Syrian women who are living as victims of the ongoing civil war will have a devastating ripple effect on generations of Syrians to come.

–Dena Elian