AMMAN: The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) entered the encircled Outer Damascus town of Madaya to evacuate 11 patients suspected of having meningitis, but left three infected children behind, sources in the town told Syria Direct on Thursday.

SARC’s intervention occurred concurrently with a similar evacuation from the rebel-encircled towns of Fuaa and Kafariya in Idlib province under a ceasefire agreement between rebels and the regime.

The SARC team of doctors provided no medical supplies to contain and treat the infection, should more cases emerge, said Hussam Madaya, a local councilman who accompanied the SARC delegation.  The visit was strictly to evacuate patients.

The departure of the 11 patients to regime-held Damascus “was not because of meningitis cases in Madaya, but because of emergency cases in Fuaa who needed to be evacuated,” Mohammed Darwish, one of Madaya’s last medical professionals, told Syria Direct on Thursday. In other words, only 11 people were allowed out of both Madaya and the two Idlib towns in accordance with last September’s Four Towns ceasefire.

Syrian state media has not reported the evacuation.

“No family members will escort the patients; there isn’t room for them since only 11 people can leave,” Darwish said, adding that 15 additional residents of Madaya are in “critical condition” but “we chose the meningitis patients to prevent an epidemic.”


 A Syrian Arab Red Crescent delegation entered Madaya on Thursday.  Photo courtesy of Hussam Madaya.  

Madaya’s medical leaders said earlier this week that meningitis, which affects the brain and spinal cord and can be deadly, may have broken out in the town, but they lack the equipment, medicine and expertise to properly diagnose and treat it. It remains unclear whether the patients have bacterial or viral meningitis, because spinal biopsies can only be done by specialists in Damascus, Darwish said. 

Three young children, who were diagnosed with meningitis by SARC members during a previous visit on Sunday to assess the medical situation, still remain in the city, as their names were not on the original evacuation list, said Hussam Madaya, a local councilman who accompanied the SARC delegation. 

Among the 11 who left on Thursday were an entire family whose members are “hallucinating and crying out of pain,” said Darwish, a dentist by training. The family reportedly caught meningitis from their 12-year-old son, Yaman, who was evacuated from Madaya on August 19. While treating the family, at least eight medical professionals at the Madaya Field Hospital, where Darwish works, contracted the disease.

Hospital staff lack the expertise and medical supplies to treat sick patients, so they have quarantined them and can only offer medicine for inflammation, said Darwish.

The city’s professional medical team—two dentists and one veterinarian—don’t have proper supplies to sterilize the quarantine room.

Despite the evacuations, people “are still obsessing over the sickness” that may be latent, Abdelwahab, a Madaya resident, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“Evacuating patients is not the fundamental solution,” says Darwish, who fears more meningitis cases will emerge among the city’s population of 40,000. 

Darwish says more Madaya residents may already be infected, but have not manifested symptoms because the virus or bacteria is still in its incubation phase. 

“People are talking about its symptoms, how to detect it and how to avoid infection,” said resident Abdelwahab.

“They’re still scared.”