DAMASCUS — Syria’s medical infrastructure has crumbled, making traditional treatments hard to come by for patients still living in the country. That has left raditional herbal and medicinal druggists, known as Attareen, as the only real alternative to cancer patients and other long-term care patients trapped in Syria.

Jawad, who has lung cancer, often visits Damascus’ Shaalan Market in search of tropical fruits. Readily available and costing between $8 and $14, Jawad and many of his friends who are also cancer patients have included these fruits in their daily diet.

“During my online research for alternative cancer treatments, I found a study that suggests tropical fruits are 1,000 times stronger than any chemical treatment,” he says.

While similar medically unproven alternative treatments are available in many parts of the country, life-saving medication is often impossible to find in war-ravaged Syria.

Safa, the mother of a 7-year-old who suffers from leukemia, says she now has to settle for the assistance and psychological support provided by local charities after medical organizations providing her son with his necessary medication were forced to close their Syrian offices.

“We live in dire economic conditions,” she says. “I visit my local chemist for remedies hoping they would have some healing effects that would give my son some comfort.” 

Honey and healthy cells

In downtown Damascus, druggist Abu Amjad sits in his shop, his merchandise stacked behind him on shelves. “Allah has not created any disease without also creating its cure,” he says, quoting a prophetic text. “Cancer is just another disease.”

Over the past two years, he says “people have returned to their traditional druggists for remedies. I tell my clients the ingredients that go into my formulas, but I keep the percentages to myself.” He keeps his prices low, he says, just enough to cover the costs of ingredients.

Often, Abdullah recommends patients take honey and other natural remedies during their recuperation phase as “these help the body to produce new, healthy cells.”

But these holistic treatments are far from the modern medical care that most cancer patients were receiving in the country before the conflict began. The Syrian medical system was once a model for the Arab world, with Syria also the second-biggest producer of pharmaceuticals in the region.

Practicing oncologist Majed Al-abdullah says that the new herbal treatments, while popular, are ineffective. “Chemo and radio patients shouldn’t replace their treatment with these remedies,” he says, adding that they shouldn’t administer them during their treatment either.

“We often see cases in which a patient doesn’t exhibit any signs of progress,” he says. “It’s only when we ask that we realize the patient has been taking remedies suggested by their local druggist or based on a friend’s recommendation.”

But desperate patients like Reem depend on these local remedies in the absence of anything else. Reem, who has breast cancer, struggles to find the camel milk that was prescribed to her by an Attareen. “I haven’t been able to even find one kilo of camel milk, which now costs 1,000 Syrian pounds ($7),” she says. “It used to cost 250 Syrian pounds ($1.70).”

Reem’s Attareen told her that camel milk helps the body repair cells damaged by chemotherapy, while stopping cancerous cells from spreading in her body. She says she needs the milk because she often receives incomplete medicine doses at the Bayrouni University Hospital and has to pay inflated prices for her vitamin pills.

Work as usual

Hospital Director Nizar Abbas says that his health facility has been able to continue its work despite the conflict.

He says the hospital’s Mezzeh branch offers radiotherapy with 200 beds for inpatients and receives between 300 and 350 patients a day. Abbas also says that the hospital’s Harasta branch offers both chemotherapy and surgery with 400 beds, and attends to between 200 and 250 patients daily.

The department of nuclear medicine has been reopened in the Moasat Hospital in collaboration with Bayrouni. All treatments offered at the hospital, he says, are free of charge.

According to a report issued by the Ministry of Higher Education, there have been over 25,000 chemotherapy sessions offered by the Bayrouni Hospital in 2013.

The first national cancer report issued by the Syrian Health Ministry covers the years 2002 to 2007 and says that the average rate of cancer patients in the country is between 63 and 575 cases per 100,000 people, which the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer say is low compared to the global outlook.

The most prevalent cancers in men were lung and bladder cancer, with breast, cervical and leukemia cancers topping the list for Syrian women.