Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Thursday, 5 March 2009

Palestinian health care 'ailing'

Palestinian woman and child in Gaza hospital (file photo)
The report said death rates of children and expectant women had not declined

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza suffer from an "ailing landscape" of health services, a new study claims.

The Lancet medical journal report highlights how 10% of Palestinian children now have stunted growth.

The paper describes the healthcare system in the Palestinian territories as "fragmented and incoherent".

An Israeli government spokesperson said the Lancet had failed to seek its view, and said many Palestinians had accessed medical care in the country.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, called the report one-sided.

He said: "This is propaganda in the guise of a medical report."

Experts from Birzeit University say death rates among children and expectant mothers have failed to decline in recent years.

The plateau is in spite of good ante-natal care and high rates of child immunisation.

The trend for stunting among children is increasing, and the concern is about the long-term effects
Dr Hanan Abdul Rahim
Birzeit University

Dr Hanan Abdul Rahim said: "There are gaps in care. There's a low level of post-natal care and often it's not given in a timely manner.

"Mortality rates among infants and under-fives haven't declined much. This is unusual when compared with other Arab countries that used to have similar rates but have managed to bring them down.

"The trend for stunting among children is increasing, and the concern is about the long-term effects. It is caused by chronic malnutrition, and affects cognitive development and physical health.

"There are pockets in northern Gaza where the level of stunted growth reaches 30%.

"It's very important that women and children have access to quality care."

FROM THE BBC WORLD SERVICE

Dr Rahim's paper mentions a previously published report from the UN, which says more than 60 Palestinian women have given birth at Israeli checkpoints and 36 of their babies have died as a result.

Another paper says the Palestinian health system fails to be effective and equitable.

'Heartbreaking'

The conditions of military occupation are blamed, but so is the political instability of the Palestinian Authority - which has appointed six health ministers in three years.

Israel as a policy enables and encourages people from all over the world to come to Israel for advanced medical treatment
Unit of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories spokesman
The lead author, Dr Awad Mataria, also from Birzeit University, said: "Political havoc is one of the reasons for the failure of the health system - but this has been exaggerated and perpetuated under occupation.

"Also, the policies of foreign aid donors can be fragmented and contradictory."

Dr Mataria's paper note that the Palestinian Authority has received $10bn in recent years - mostly donated by the European Union.

But he and his colleagues say health programmes have focused on relief and emergency, rather than on long-term development.

In an editorial accompanying the series, the Lancet's editor Richard Horton said: "Our series is not about Arab politics, the status of Israel, or existing conventional diplomatic efforts to broker peace."

He added: "The latest storm of violence to engulf Gaza has been heartbreaking to watch, especially for those who have seen first hand the predicaments faced by health professionals trying to maintain a rudimentary, but ultimately failing, health system there."

Israeli response

An Israeli government spokesperson from the office responsible for coordination with the Palestinian territories said the researchers had failed to get a full picture of health care in the region.

He said: "In the two year period supposedly covered by the report over 28,000 Palestinians accessed Israel from the Gaza Strip for medical needs.

"Contrary to the indications of the writers, at no time was medical access from Gaza prevented as a policy.

"On the contrary, the only time medical aid in Israel was prevented was as a direct result of a Palestinian decision or on limited occasions when the crossing in to Israel was under direct threat and attack."

He added: "Israel as a policy enables and encourages people from all over the world to come to Israel for advanced medical treatment it is only natural that our closest neighbour, the Palestinians, enjoy this privilege."

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