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Source: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
22 October 2009


When on the 1st of May 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) began its operations, the health status of the 750,000 Palestinians under its care was extremely poor. Conditions of overcrowding and low hygiene in camps favoured the transmission of air and water-borne infections. Reducing the malnutrition and under-nourishment affecting infants and children was a major priority. With the launch of its supplementary feeding programme, UNRWA began to provide fresh midday meals to children, as well as monthly dry rations, milk and cod liver oil. One of UNRWA’s key innovations in the field was the introduction in 1957 of Najjar salts, a special oral rehydration formula for the treatment of dehydrated diarrheic infants. In later years, this treatment was adopted and used extensively by UNICEF.

One particularly difficult challenge faced by UNRWA was the fight against communicable diseases. In the 1950s, UNRWA introduced immunization both routinely and in its promotion of mass immunization campaigns. The presence of malaria in the Jordan Valley was also eradicated. Combined with a dramatic improvement in living conditions, these interventions have precipitated a steady decline in mortality rates in the camps.

.... AND NOW

Today, a rapidly growing population of 4.7 million Palestine refugees is assisted by UNRWA in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As the life expectancy of this population increases, its demography has changed. Almost 40 per cent of the refugees are under 18 years of age, and there is a growing elderly population. These developments place an economic burden on families that is aggravated by the problems of generalized poverty and unemployment. This is particularly acute in the Gaza Strip, where almost 90 per cent of refugees are either younger than 15, or older than 65 years.

The indicators of achievement for refugees in relation to the Millenium Development Goals for health closely resemble those of their host countries. However, in the Gaza Strip, infant and maternal mortality is comparatively higher, and general life expectancy lower than in the West Bank. While communicable diseases, so prevalent in the early years of UNRWA’s activities, are now under control, new diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity are emerging as a significant threat to the ability of refugees to live long and healthy lives.

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