Pietro Bartolo, the 'migrants' doctor,' is now a member of European Parliament | Photo: ANSA
Pietro Bartolo, the 'migrants' doctor,' is now a member of European Parliament | Photo: ANSA

Former Lampedusa doctor and current member of the European Parliament, Pietro Bartolo, says for years he has been seeing women migrants with what he calls the 'dinghy disease' - chemical burns only females tend to sustain while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards Italy.

During their journeys across the Mediterranean towards Italy, many women end up with serious chemical burns that scar them for the rest of their lives - even when they manage to survive the journey itself.

According to Pietro Bartolo, who is known as Italy's migrants' doctor, many female migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea towards Italy suffered from the "dinghy disease" in recent years.

Bartolo, a former Lampedusa doctor and now member of the European Parliament, spoke about the "disease" on Thursday during a continuing professional training course in Milan. The course was held by the national union of medical and scientific information (UNAMSI) and the professional journalists body.

"What I call 'dinghy diseases' are very serious chemical burns that affect only women on these journeys," said Bartolo, who spent 27 years as the first doctor to examine migrants reaching Europe's shores. "When they do not die, they end up scarred for the rest of their lives."

Cheap dinghies lead to burns

Bartolo said he started seeing the "dinghy disease" in 2013 when traffickers stopped using large old boats and began to use "large Chinese dinghies without a hull" instead. These boats were cheaper and could be "stuffed with hundreds of people,'' the former doctor said.

''Only women are affected because the men sit on the tubes and the women with children sit in the bottom. It is there that a deathly and highly corrosive mixture of fuel and sea water soaks the clothing and leads to tremendous burns on the women within only a few hours," he stressed.
A rubber dinghy carrying migrants rescued by German NGO Sea-Eye ship Alan Kurdi on October 26, 2019 | Photo: Reuters/Sea Eye/Julie BourdinThe doctor showed journalists taking part in the course disturbing images of the effects of these burns. When the journey lasts a long time, fuel needs to be poured several times into the outboard motors and waves from rough seas get inside the dinghy. "The skin burns are very serious," Bartolo said.

"The mixture is corrosive, their skin gets dehydrated, problems result including cardiac ones," he warned. "And when these women manage to survive, they must be hospitalized at the Palermo burns center to be treated. In any case, they remain scarred for life."

'Thousands of deaths'

Bartolo was involved in aiding migrants landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa for over 3 decades, starting in 1988. During that period, he allegedly examined and provided first aid to over 350,000 people. He has also written two books and promoted two feature films on the problems he experienced firsthand: "Fuocoammare" ("Fire at Sea") in 2016 and a second one that will come out in January 2020.
Pietro Bartolo (wearing a blue vest) treated migrants for more than 3 decades | Photo: pciture-alliance/ROPIAlthough there's "fear that African migrants bring diseases with them," Bartolo said, he only witnessed scabies, which is easily treatable, dehydration, hypothermia and trauma from violence among the migrants he treated.

"I've seen thousands of deaths from drowning" as well as "many children who died and were raped," Bartolo added.

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