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24 Aug, 2013 15:23

3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms in Damascus hospitals on Wednesday – Doctors Without Borders

3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms in Damascus hospitals on Wednesday – Doctors Without Borders

Nearly 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms were treated in three Damascus hospitals on the day a toxic gas attack was reported, say Doctors Without Borders (MSF). 355 patients were reportedly pronounced dead.

The international medical humanitarian organization said it received information from hospitals it has been supporting in Syria.

“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,” MSF director of operations, Dr. Bart Janssens said in a press-release published on the organization’s webpage.

However, MSF could not “scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms”.

“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,” Janssens says in the report. 

At the same time, he says they are unable to “establish who is responsible for the attack”.

Hospitals have been reportedly treating patients with atropine, an antidote drug used to cure nerve gas poisoning that MSF supply to the facilities.

It follows from the report that MSF will now replenish “empty stocks” and deliver additional medical supplies.

“In addition to 1,600 vials of atropine supplied over recent months, MSF has now dispatched 7,000 additional vials to facilities in the area. Treatment of neurotoxic patients is now being fully integrated into MSF’s medical strategies in all its programs in Syria,” stated Janssens.

A boy, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, is treated at a medical center in the Damascus suburbs of Saqba, August 21, 2013 (Reuters / Bassam Khabieh)

Later on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calculated that the number killed in an alleged gas attack which took place in an eastern Damascus suburb on Wednesday stood lower, at 322. There were “322 dead, including 54 children, 82 women and dozens of rebels, as well as 16 unidentified bodies,” the organization announced.

The revelation by MSF happened within a week of a UN investigative team entering the country to examine three different sites of alleged chemical weapons usage. It was also just hours after UN disarmament chief Angela Kane arrived in the Syrian capital of Damascus to apply pressure on the Syrian government to grant access to the site of the reported attack in the Damascus suburbs on Wednesday.

Syria is yet to give its assent to the UN inspectors currently in the country, who have not yet visited the sites of the alleged assault.

However, the Syrian government said on Thursday that in light of the event it was ready to engage in “maximum” cooperation with UN experts, according to Russia’s foreign ministry.

Both the US and France have joined the chorus of accusations that Bashar al-Assad's forces carried out the attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday, with the US cautiously mulling military intervention. Obama said that he was weighing his options and has described it as “a big event of grave concern.”

A report released on Saturday indicated that the Pentagon was already making “initial preparations” for a cruise missile attack on Syrian government forces.

Children, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathe through oxygen masks in the Damascus suburb of Saqba, August 21, 2013 (Reuters / Bassam Khabieh)

Moscow has commented that it was monitoring events surrounding the alleged attack. “We’re getting more new evidence that this criminal act was of a provocative nature,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, said in a statement on Friday.

“In particular, there are reports circulating on the Internet that the materials of the incident and accusations against government troops had been posted for several hours before the so-called attack. Thus, it was a pre-planned action,” he said. 

On Saturday the Syrian opposition denied that rebel forces had employed chemical weapons, making allegations that the government was employing diversionary tactics.

“The National Coalition totally rejects the lies from the [President Bashar] Assad regime and considers them a desperate bid to divert attention from its repeated crimes and methods against Syrian civilians,” said a statement released by the main opposition bloc.

The “international community knows full well that the Assad regime is the only party in Syria which possesses the means to produce, use and stock chemical weapons,” the statement said.

Syria-based political activist Ayssar Midani disagreed. “The usage of these chemical weapons is coming to help them…to make more investigations, to let them [the rebels] recover and gain more places, and just relax from their defeat. This is a very tactical problem in this war which is delivered against Syria by all these occidental countries,” she told RT.