Out of the Syrian crisis, a data revolution takes shape

Source: Nature

Shadows shroud Issam Salim's face as he recounts the operations he's performed. Yesterday, he tended to fractures, mangled limbs and intestinal injuries caused by an explosion from an unknown source. “The situation was very tense,” he says. Today, there have been no war-wounded patients, so he saw people with bladder stones and hernias instead. Salim is deputy director of a hospital in southern Syria, and he's talking to an Iraqi surgeon, Ghassan Aziz, through a flickering Skype video call.

Aziz is not far away — just two hours south by car, in Jordan's capital, Amman. It is from here that the organization Aziz works for, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been providing medical aid to clinics in southern Syria during a conflict that has become one of the world's worst ongoing humanitarian crises. But Aziz and his colleagues dare not get much closer. After 13 MSF staff members were kidnapped in January 2014, the organization, also known as Doctors without Borders, pulled its international staff out of the country.

Text messages and calls such as the one with Salim provide a glimpse of what is going on, but it is hardly enough to let MSF staff predict what Syrian doctors and nurses will need most to help their communities. An increase in severe burns might mean that C-4 plastic explosives are in heavy rotation, for example, and therefore medics will require extra antibiotics, intravenous lines and surgical equipment, because they won't have time to sterilize between operations. Or an increase in kidney failures could mean that people with diabetes have lost access to regular care. But the fog of war makes tracking such trends next to impossible.