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Boycott curtails Palestinian health care

The rise of Hamas to power brought economic penalties, which fall hardest on patients who can't get drugs or surgery.

Published May 8, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - 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 $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 feeling the crunch.

In the dialysis unit, more than a dozen women in robes and traditional head scarves 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. "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 drugs for kidney patients.

It also can't get spare parts to fix six broken dialysis machines, leaving only 22 working, Nasser said. The result is a cut in dialysis sessions 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," he 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.

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. "They will relapse," he said.

At the hospital pharmacy, the shelves are becoming bare.

"I swear there is none of that medicine, not even one pill," Laura Menawi, an exasperated pharmacist, told a patient.

With little anesthesia left, the hospital is limiting surgery to emergencies. "I am afraid that after two weeks, we won't even be able to do these," said Dr. Juma Al Saqqa.

The financial crisis started when the Palestinians' Jan. 25 parliamentary elections were won by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist or to renounce violence.

Israel halted the monthly transfer of roughly $55-million in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and the United States and European Union froze hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to the regime.

The funding cuts have left Palestinian coffers nearly empty and the government - the Palestinians' main employer - unable to pay its workers.

[Last modified May 8, 2006, 08:11:30]

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