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Analysis: Health care crisis in Palestine

By
SARA GORECKI

WASHINGTON, July 7 (UPI) -- Mired in political and economic turmoil, the Palestinian healthcare system is in a grave state of crisis ill-equipped to absorb the latest spasms of violence in the territories.

Even the most basic medications are hard to come by and become scarcer as time goes on, Dr. Rasmi Abu-Helu, assistant professor of medical technology at Al-Quds University, pointed out in a recent presentation. The crux of the problem is financial, he said, noting that much of the international community has cut aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government since its election victory in January.

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"It's not only Israel, but the entire Western world," he said. "Nowadays I don't think there's any international aid getting inside."

The Palestinian territories have 731 public healthcare centers, with 277 villages lacking clinics. That equals about two centers for every 2,000 people, a number which is hardly sufficient, Abu-Helu said. Moreover, only one hospital exists for every 47,000 people.

Existing facilities are poorly stocked, according to Nidal Ibrahim, executive director of the Arab American Institute. He said basic supplies such as syringes, bandages, gauze and antibiotics had not been delivered to the area for at least two or three weeks. Even surgeries are being delayed because doctors are without the materials necessary to perform them safely.

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"I think the deterioration of the healthcare system in the area has reached crisis proportions," Ibrahim said.

In addition to low morale resulting from the poor conditions, healthcare providers are facing threats to their personal safety; medical facilities and ambulances are often attacked, resulting in over 36 deaths and 443 injured staff members, Abu-Helu said.

Israeli troops and Palestinian militants have clashed since last week when Israel entered the Gaza Strip to secure the release of a captured soldier and stop rocket fire into Israel. Thirty Palestinians were injured as fighting raged on Thursday, according to medical personnel.

Violence-related treatment aside, the importance of adequate healthcare in the area is vital considering health problems endemic to the Palestinian territories. The average life expectancy is 72.6 years, five years lower than in the United States; the rate of mental disorders doubled between 2000 and 2004; and hepatatis A has surged, Abu-Helu said. Infant mortality is especially high, with rates of 19.1 for every 1,000 live births in the West Bank, compared with 6.9 in Israel and 6.6 in the United States.

The Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Health is paying special attention to children, trying to give them all appropriate vaccinations. But they still suffer from a range of ailments, such as poor oral hygiene and anemia rates that exceed 75 percent among children under nine-months-old.

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Abu-Helu cited several reasons behind the widespread health problems in the Palestine Authority: Gaza has 5,000 to 10,000 people per sq. kilometer, making it the most densely populated region of the world. It also suffers from minimal sanitation, frequent water shortages and deep-seated poverty.

Military checkpoints have also taken a toll; sixty-one women have given birth at checkpoints, resulting in 36 newborn deaths.

"There are checkpoints for people, checkpoints for ambulances, checkpoints for workers, even checkpoints for animals," Abu-Helu said.

The checkpoints also make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to pass through borders, which is especially important with supplies running so low.

The Palestine Authority currently lacks "the infrastructure, the expertise, and the equipment" to provide proper healthcare. With resources so limited, Abu-Helu said that the main priority should be to provide adequate care for children, adding that increased funding is essential.

"We are trying to approach the right people, the right countries, to stop this blockade. We must get them to differentiate between humanitarian and political issues," Abu-Helu told United Press International.

Ibrahim agreed, saying that the United Nations and the United States need to realize that the blockade of humanitarian relief will not benefit anyone, pointing out that many who suffer are not affiliated with Hamas.

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"We cannot operate on the basis that starving people into submission is an acceptable tool of international politics," he said.

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