Sana Syed (2007) writes in "The Guardian" about health problems in children refugees


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Barring refugees causes children to suffer with preventable health problems


Photograph: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

The young boy in my care, a refugee whose family had recently been granted US immigrant status, had suffered from an entirely reversible medical condition that had led to permanent brain damage.

A week into life at his parents’ refugee camp, he was feeding less than the other babies in the camp. He had also turned yellow. Despite hurrying him to the hospital where they finally got medical attention, it was too late – the jaundice caused brain damage, and he was left with significant developmental delay, spasticity, seizures and learning disabilities.

“Doctor, are you going to do anything to make his brain better?” the father asked me as I rounded on his son. A stream of words hid what I truly felt, which was that no five year old anywhere in the world should have to suffer like this, and the blame falls partly on the west’s hesitation to admit refugees.

While the US has the luxury of taking two years to screen appropriate candidates – most notably from Syria in recent days, though there are refugees from many other countries in the same situation – the overwhelming numbers needing not just emergency care but also routine healthcare (like my patient) means there is a short supply of medical providers, and that preventable tragedies will continue to happen.

The boy was admitted to the hospital where I worked in order to establish a safe way to feed him; his history suggested he had a risk of aspiration, likely a result of the brain damage he suffered as a baby. The government social worker who had been assigned the family’s case when they arrived in the US said that the parents had started to have hope. After all, in the past two weeks they had received more attention than they had ever thought possible. Yet at age five, the boy had weakness and could not control his head position.

This brain damage, called kernicterus, rarely happens in the US – or anywhere else with the most basic medical care. Every baby born here is tested at 24 hours old and then repeatedly, if necessary, to prevent the condition. But that’s more than this family could expect living in a refugee camp.

The boy’s older brother never made it here. Days after his parents took him home, he developed a high fever. At first they tried cold compresses to bring his temperature down. When the baby stopped being able to feed they hurried him to the nearest medical facility. When they finally reached a doctor at the overburdened and short-staffed hospital, they were told the baby had meningitis. The infant died shortly thereafter, and my patient was born a year later.

As the US keeps a tight leash on the number of refugees allowed to enter, and European countries increasingly institute strict quotas and restrictions for refugees already there, we must all remain mindful of the needless damage these policies cause to children who are victims of circumstance, living without access to basic care. World leaders can talk about necessary losses and collateral damage, but there are some things that we should not accept.

We must support research, along with funding maternal and newborn programs that focus on education and health provision in refugee camps and areas of conflict. Most of all, we must not be a silent majority – we must speak up for the rights of the voiceless and dispossessed. War has serious consequences, and we as a global society are responsible for our children, wherever we live.

Source: Barring refugees causes children to suffer with preventable health problems | Sana Syed
Author: @Sana Syed '07