The World Health Organization published a statement on Wednesday saying it was “deeply alarmed” by reports of chemical weapons deployment in Syria.
WHO said it has received reports from partners in the Douma area that roughly 500 patients have been treated for symptoms consistent with toxic exposure, while over 70 deaths were reported from the attack, 43 of them apparently caused by toxic chemical exposure.
“Two health facilities were also reportedly affected by these attacks,” WHO added, reminding all parties in the Syrian conflict of their obligation under U.N. Security Council resolutions to refrain from attacking medical facilities and personnel.
Symptoms reported to the WHO included “severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems of those exposed.”
The UK Guardian quotes medics in the besieged town of Douma who said patients displayed symptoms including “frothing at the mouth, suffocation, dilated and constricted pupils, corneal burns, central cyanosis—a blue tinge to the skin—and a chlorine-like odor,” all of which are consistent with chemical weapons such as sarin gas.
The Guardian notes that the attack appears to have broken the morale of rebel group Jaish al-Islam, which pulled out of Douma with thousands of civilians after consistently refusing surrender deals that would have driven them from Douma into northeastern Syria.
“Global norms against chemical weapons reflect a particular abhorrence to their disproportionate harm to the eldest, the most infirm, and the youngest among us,” the statement declared.
“We should all be outraged at these horrific reports and images from Douma,” said WHO Deputy Director-General Dr. Peter Salama.
“WHO demands immediate unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts, and to deliver a comprehensive public health response,” Salama said.
The statement stressed that WHO is not a forensic investigation unit but is solely concerned with treating the victims and doing what it can to prevent further chemical attacks.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is interested in the forensic analysis of alleged chemical weapons deployment, said on Tuesday that it will send a team to Syria, with the support of the Syrian and Russian governments. Details for the OPCW mission have not been finalized yet. The international watchdog group stressed that it will not release information about the investigation before it has been completed, to ensure the integrity of the process and protect the safety of investigators.