Around 3,600 patients displaying “neurotoxic symptoms” flooded into three Syrian hospitals on the day of alleged chemical weapons attacks, and 355 of them died, Doctors without Borders (MSF) said Saturday.
The victims all arrived within less than three hours of each other, and MSF director of operations Bart Janssens said the pattern of events and the reported symptoms “strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”
“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” he said.
Syrian opposition groups have accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of launching massive chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21 and killing as many as 1,300 people.
The Syrian government has strongly denied those allegations, but has yet to accede to demands that U.N. inspectors already in the country be allowed to visit the sites of the alleged attacks.
There has been no independent verification of the number of dead, and the medical humanitarian organization is the first independent source to report such a high toll from the alleged attacks.
MSF provides drugs, medical equipment and technical support to the three hospitals near Damascus, which its staff have not been able to access for security reasons.
“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Janssens.
“However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events -- characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers -- strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.”
MSF said patients had been treated using atropine, a drug it had supplied and which is used to treat neurotoxic symptoms.
It has sent another 7,000 vials of the drug to facilities in the area and said it is making treatment of neurotoxic symptoms part of all its Syria programs.
General director Christopher Stokes called for independent investigators to be given immediate access.
“This latest attack and subsequent massive medical need come on top of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation, characterized by extreme violence, displacement, and deliberate destruction of medical facilities,” he said.
“In the case of such extreme violations of humanitarian law, humanitarian assistance cannot respond effectively and becomes meaningless itself.”