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Children with cystic fibrosis in Gaza in 'mortal danger' for want of medicine

July 9, 2017 11:46 A.M. (Updated: July 9, 2017 11:08 P.M.)
A young girl raises a sign beside a hospital bed in Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi hospital, where a child is being treated for cystic fibrosis: "Save cystic fibrosis patients."
GAZA (Ma’an) -- Tens of Palestinian children being treated at a Gaza City hospital for cystic fibrosis are facing possible imminent death, relatives and medical sources told Ma’an, amid what rights groups described as the worst medication crisis the besieged Gaza Strip has seen in years, stemming from debilitating budget cuts by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The PA has been the center of widespread condemnation in recent weeks for its policies in Gaza aimed at putting pressure on Hamas to relinquish control of the besieged coastal enclave and hand over the territory to the PA.

The main victims of the current medication crisis are cancer patients, infants with developmental deficits, and hundreds of cystic fibrosis patients, according to a report last month from Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI).

Information gathered by PHRI showed that the PA’s regular monthly budget for Gaza medical supplies had been $4 million, but dropped to $2.3 million in April, and to a mere $500,000 in May. As a result, one-third of essential medicines and more than 270 medical equipment items for operating rooms and intensive care units have vanished from the health ministry’s storerooms or in Gaza’s hospitals.

Chairman of the Association of Cystic Fibrosis Patients in Gaza Ashraf al-Shanti has said that over 320 cystic fibrosis patients are in mortal danger. He said the patients require 40,000 Cryon pills, but storerooms were already completely empty as of mid-June.

The parents of young cystic fibrosis patients being treated at Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi hospital west of Gaza city told Ma’an that the life-saving medication has become a “distant dream,” and also reported that alternative medicine being provided by the Palestinian Health Ministry is actually worsening the conditions of their children.

Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, the father of six-year-old cystic fibrosis patient said that his son’s illness has drastically deteriorated since the medicine disappeared from storerooms and hospitals in the small Palestinian territory, which is meanwhile struggling to cope with just a few hours of power per day as a result of an agreement between Israel and the PA to slash electricity supplies.

“I used to take my son to al-Shifa Hospital to get the medicine, but it has been unavailable for the last six months. The ministry of health provided an alternative for the medicine, but it only made my son’s condition grow worse,” al-Yacoubi said.

The man said that his son is facing the possibility of death “at any moment.” Al-Yacoubi’s first son, who also had cystic fibrosis, died for want of treatment when the family could neither find medication in Gaza nor obtain Israel permission to leave the blockaded coastal enclave for treatment at Israeli hospitals.

The father demanded that the competent authorities solve the medicine crises and “not to involve medical patients in political conflicts.”

Umm Moyad Moussa, the mother of a child who suffers from cystic fibrosis, said that the alternative medicine provided by the ministry of health is half as effective as the original medicine, particularly for young children.

She said most children are unable to swallow the new, bigger pills, which, when ground or broken up lose their effectiveness, and also risk irritating the respiratory and digestive system.

The head of cystic fibrosis center Ashraf al-Shanti reiterated to Ma’an that the 321 cystic fibrosis patients in Gaza could die at any moment for need of medication and insisted that the alternative is “not a proper treatment.”

Al-Shanti demanded all international organizations operating in the Gaza Strip intervene to help provide adequate medication ”before it’s too late.” He said a similar medication crisis in 2007, when Israel first imposed its crippling blockade in Gaza following Hamas’ rise to power in the territory, resulted in the death of seven children who were unable to acquire cystic fibrosis medicine.

Healthcare inside Gaza has greatly suffered as part of the decade-long Israeli siege, with Israel limiting medical equipment allowed in and restricts travel for doctors seeking further medical training and specialization.

Before Israel implemented the electricity cuts at the request of the PA last month, Gaza's medical sector had already been struggling to provide diesel fuel to operate the 87 generators that supply electricity to hospitals during blackout hours.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza also warned that diagnostic radiology equipment worth an estimated $10 million would soon fall into disrepair due to their sensitivity to blackouts.

In addition to the PA’s budget cuts to medication and fuel, reports also emerged that the PA has been preventing Palestinians in Gaza from leaving the territory for medical treatment.To leave Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing to receive treatment in the occupied West Bank, Gazans must first apply to the PA before applying to Israel.

Spokesperson for Gaza’s health ministry spokesman said that at least 11 people, most of them children, have died since the beginning of the year as a result of refusal of travel permits to them by either Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

In April, the number of vouchers issued by the PA dropped below 2,000, whereas 2016 saw an average of 2,041 vouchers issued each month. In May, the number of vouchers issued plunged to just a few dozen, according to data from PHRI.

More than 90 percent of patients in Gaza who requested such vouchers over the past month did not received a reply from the PA, while only 10 of the some 120 daily requests submitted to the PA have been getting approved, according to the data, published by Israeli daily Haaretz.

Despite consistently denying allegations that PA policies have exacerbated the medical crisis in Gaza, the PA and Israel reportedly said they “reached a consensus” for the Palestinian Ministry of Health to “lift restrictions on financial commitments for Gazans’ medical treatment,” Haaretz reported at the end of June.

“The humanitarian crisis in Gaza must be a wake-up call for everyone able to solve the problem,” PHRI Executive Director Ran Goldstein said last month. “Gaza’s children have become hostages in the political game played by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Israel. The change must be dramatic and immediate -- providing funds, medicines, and electric power, opening Gaza to the outside world and offering urgent humanitarian assistance."
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