Wed, May 10, 2006 - Page 6 News List

West's boycott hits Gaza health aid

DWINDLING SUPPLIES International aid workers and government officials said the cash crisis has brought the Palestinian healthcare system to the brink of disaster


The shelves at Shifa Hospital's pharmacy are half empty. A shortage of anesthesia means surgeons can do only emergency operations. The kidney unit has cut back on dialysis because it's low on filters, and four of the unit's patients have died from a lack of medicine, officials say.

The West's economic boycott of the Hamas-led regime has brought the perpetually strained Palestinian health care system to the brink of disaster, international aid workers and government officials say. They warn of an epidemic of preventable deaths if money is not found soon.

The cash crisis also could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian sanitation and sewage systems, raising the threat of cholera and other diseases breaking out during the sweltering summer, municipal officials say.

Western nations say they continue to provide humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, just not to the regime led by the Islamic militants of Hamas.

Aid officials insist that is no substitute for keeping a functioning government going.

"If we can't continue our work, then disease will break out everywhere, and these diseases will not stop at borders," Health Minister Bassem Naim said.

The Health Ministry, which runs the vast majority of Palestinian hospitals and clinics, normally spends about US$9 million a month.

Now it is broke, and the entire system will break down in two months if money doesn't come in, Naim said.

Shifa, the main hospital for the Gaza Strip's 1.3 million people, is already feeling the crunch.

In the dialysis unit, more than a dozen women in robes and traditional headscarves sat quietly on tattered easy chairs on a recent day as tubes carried blood from their arms into blue machines for filtering.

Samiha Harb, 52, has been on dialysis for 22 years, but her health has rapidly deteriorated in the two months since she stopped getting a cocktail of hormones, vitamins and medicines that help her survive without working kidneys.

Her level of hemoglobin, the blood component that carries oxygen throughout the body, has plunged, and she is so weak that she rarely leaves home -- except to get her treatment.

"I want to just stay in bed and not move,'' she said.

Abdel Nasser, a pharmacist in charge of the hospital's supply of drugs and medical equipment, said Shifa is already in debt to pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers and can't afford the vital drugs for kidney patients.

It also can't get spare parts to fix six broken dialysis machines, leaving only 22 working, Nasser said. The supply of adult filters is dwindling, so workers are using smaller children's filters.

The result is a cut in dialysis sessions to twice a week from the standard three, and occasionally workers have had to turn away kidney patients -- some of them children -- with no treatment at all, Nasser said.

"We have to look at their faces, their yellow faces," Nasser said. "This cannot work. This is a human crisis."

Hospital officials said four dialysis patients have died in recent weeks because of the shortage of medicines.

"We don't tell the family that they died of drug deficiencies. We say it was God's will," Nasser said.

In the cancer unit, the drug shortage has forced chief oncology nurse Sayed al Masri to send increasing numbers of leukemia patients home without chemotherapy, and many have stopped coming.

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