By Jane O’Brien
NEW YORK, USA, 12 September 2006 – Thousands of children in the West Bank and Gaza have been without medical care since health workers went on strike earlier this month. Along with other government workers, they have not been paid for several months because of the continuing conflict in the occupied Palestinian territory.
“What we are seeing is a health system under siege,” says UNICEF Representative Dan Rohrmann. “It’s making a bad situation for children even worse. We are really pushing the health system to the brink.”
The strike has caused shortages of staff and medical supplies and made it difficult for parents and children to access basic health services. It has also jeopardized the ‘cold chain’ system, which is crucial for storing vaccines.
“UNICEF is really being asked to step up to the plate to work for children,” says Mr. Rohrmann. “What we are doing right now is supplying drugs, vaccines and maintaining the cold-chain system to make sure that children can get the care they have a right to.”
Many people are turning to clinics set up to serve the 27 Palestinian refugee camps operated by the UN Relief and Works Agency and supported by UNICEF. In Jenin, located in the northern West Bank, the clinic has become the only health centre for 200,000 people. Its case load has more than doubled to 700 patients a day.
“I have been here for almost three hours waiting to vaccinate my son,” says one mother, Shafika Abdul Fattah. “My back hurts from standing all this time. I have suffered a lot and my son is only a month old.”
Challenge of delivering services
Even with resources stretched to the limit, the clinic’s staff are able to immunize 80 children a day with UNICEF-supplied vaccines. UNICEF is also providing health centres across the region with essential medicines and fuel.
But delivering services to those most vulnerable remains a challenge.
“We provide initial health care services for mothers and children,” says nurse Aida Madi at the Jenin centre. “But the strike has caused many problems because we now accept double the usual number of people. Lots of them suffer as a result – especially mothers who just gave birth to their children, because their condition doesn’t allow them to wait all that long, and they get dizzy sometimes.”
Children are bearing the brunt of the ongoing conflict in the West Bank and Gaza. Dozens have been killed in the fighting while school closures, power outages and now the health strike are eroding their basic rights. Without an end to the violence, their suffering will continue.